Donald and Mary Banks of Rosedale have their son, Marcus, in a Catholic school for eighth grade, but the Baltimore County residents were shopping for a high school in the city Saturday, three of the thousands of people browsing through a bazaar of middle and high school offerings at the Poly-Western complex.
"I feel overwhelmed. It's hard to pick," said Marcus, 14, after emerging from the noisy, crowded hallways and cafeteria jammed with individual booths for each of 65 city public schools competing for students.
Paul and Wanda Clark of Hamilton are looking over the options for middle school for their son, Paul Jr., 10, a fifth-grader at Furley Elementary. Nearby Northeast Middle might be fine, Paul Sr. said, but "we didn't want to limit our options. I want to make sure he's getting a good education."
A happy Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso said this first unified middle and high school event is providing the choices and competition he wants students and their families to benefit from.
"Several years ago, parents had no choices," he said, referring to a time when students were mostly assigned to neighborhood schools. Now, his aim is to offer families a wealth of options, from small charter schools with specialties, such as the brand-new Design Academy due to open next August, to traditional institutions like Baltimore City College, Western High and Polytechnic.
"This is my version of Artscape. It's also a celebration," Alonso laughed as students and families bustled past him.
Families can choose up to five schools they prefer for their children, and officials will work with them to get at least one they like if there are more applicants than seats at a particular school. Schools that don't attract enough students send a signal that they need help, Alonso said. "We haven't been shy about making changes" where needed, he said.
Traffic backed up on Cold Spring Lane as people waited both to enter the school complex and then to find a parking place. Lines formed sometimes to enter the building for the event, which ran from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. In addition, school buses brought hundreds of people from their neighborhoods all over the city. Schools spokeswoman Edie House said more than 5,500 people attended, and next year the system might move to a college campus to ease the crush.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stopped by around 11:30 a.m., pleased to see the crowds.
"I think this is the way we're going to continue the increase in [city schools'] enrollment, by showcasing all the great things we have in our school system," she said.
Donald Banks, 61, a 39-year veteran teacher, said the family was "just shopping" for a high school because of a combination of things, from higher tuitions for Catholic high schools to better athletic opportunities and a broader range of educational specialties.
The family will now visit each school on its list before submitting its choices next month. Mary Banks, 61, a retired nursing aide, said the family was looking at Digital Harbor High School in the former Southern High building and Dunbar in East Baltimore, where Donald went, but she liked the Coppin idea because the high school is right on the college campus, so she feels some of that atmosphere and expectations may soak into Marcus, a "C" student.
The Clarks liked the idea of a debate team at the Stadium School not too far from them, though Paul Jr., said he liked the robotics offered at his neighborhood middle school, too. "I'm really into it," he said. They also talked to faculty members at the Friendship Academy of Science and Technology in the former Canton Middle school building at 801 S. Highland St. College adviser Jennifer Covahey, 24, said their 560 students in grades 6-11 take computers apart and rebuild them, among other things.
The new Baltimore Design School is still trying to nail down a location and hire staff. Meanwhile Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, said Baltimore will be joining a handful of design schools around the country. "It's a way of engaging kids in opportunities."