Longtime Towson activist becomes a champion for students in need

It might be said that Laurie Taylor-Mitchell’s schools-centric activism has followed her son’s path since 2000 through Baltimore County Public Schools with a few side trips that include advocating for environmental causes and a run for Baltimore County Council. And though her son Andrew Mitchell is grown, Taylor-Mitchell, 61, has circled back to county schools to now champion the cause of students in need.

Always interested in education issues — she said she comes from a “long line of teachers” that includes her grandmother, mother and brother — Taylor-Mitchell’s career was as a professor of art history at Hood College in Frederick, Md., for 10 years before she immersed herself in Baltimore County schools as volunteer and activist.

She started volunteering hosting presentations to kindergarten-through-fifth-grade students on the arts at Hampton Elementary School, which her son attended. The presentations ran the gamut from ancient Greece during the 2004 Olympics to cave paintings to the Civil War, when she donned a period costume and acted the part of a teacher from that era.

“That was a blast,” she said. “To have something that excited the kids so much was instant gratification.”

Andrew, now 23, then moved on to Ridgely Middle School in Timonium in the mid-2000s. When Taylor-Mitchell found out Ridgely Middle would be renovated without central air conditioning, she spent almost four years petitioning with other advocates until they were successful in securing AC at the Lutherville-Timonium school.

Later, when her son was at Loch Raven High School, Taylor-Mitchell was behind a push to block a 400-seat addition in 2007 because, she said, areas such as hallways and cafeterias would have been compromised. Research showed that smaller higher schools provided a better learning environment and traffic and parking problems in the surrounding neighborhood would have greatly increased.

In 2010, Laurie received an award from the Teachers Association of Baltimore County for Meritorious Service as an Outstanding Educator for her work to improve the public schools.

Among other activities, she is on the board of NeighborSpace, which works with communities to protect and improve land for parks, gardens, trails and natural areas within Baltimore County's Urban Rural Demarcation Line, and she runs the Weed Warriors at Cromwell Valley Park, pulling invasive plants year-round that are strangling trees or carpeted areas of the park that are crowding out native species.

“The whole ecosystem is being invaded by invasive plants. We’re trying a little restoration and reseeding,” Taylor-Mitchell said. “I think it’s an important thing to do and I enjoy getting outside.”

In 2013, she left her position at Hood College to pursue a seat on the Baltimore County Council. She lost to former state delegate and current Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach, a Republican who represents Cockeysville and northern Baltimore County.

As part of Advocates for Baltimore County Schools, a coalition of Baltimore County education advocacy groups, she supported adoption of the 2014 hybrid school board bill. For the first time ever, voters this year will elect seven people to the Baltimore County Board of Education, to add to the four appointed seats and one student member.

‘Really grabbed me’

In 2015 she turned her attention to researching student poverty rates and finding ways to advocate on behalf of students in need.

She credits an article in the Towson Times about the Food for Thought backpack program, which provides a free bag of food each week to students identified by school officials as in need, as prompting her to start doing research on county students living in poverty. She discovered in December 2015 that nearly 300 students at Loch Raven High School, where her son had graduated from, fit the criteria.

“I had never heard of such a thing [Food for Thought program]. That really grabbed me. That there was that kind of poverty in the county we live in was astounding,” Taylor-Mitchell said. “It’s Christmas and it’s completely out of reach for these kids.”

According to Maryland Department of Education data, more than 43 percent of Baltimore County Public Schools students are enrolled in the free or reduced-price meals program this school year.

Per eligibility guidelines for the programs, a family of four must make less than $31,980 to qualify for free meals or $45,510 to qualify for reduced-price meals. A single parent must make less than $21,112 to qualify a child for free meals or $30,044 to qualify for reduced-price meals.

The relatively low thresholds compared to the cost of living in Maryland means there are students who do not meet income eligibility guidelines but still struggle to eat, Taylor-Mitchell said. Families could be making the hard choice to put food on the table in lieu of buying needed household items, she said.

“If a single parent makes $22,000 a year, that child does not qualify and that is a shame,” Taylor-Mitchell said.

At Loch Raven High, more than 31 percent of students qualify and have enrolled in the free or reduced-price meals program this school year. Fifteen students were identified as homeless by faculty and staff in December, according to data collected by the Loch Raven Network from Baltimore County Public Schools, Taylor-Mitchell said.

During that Christmastime, Taylor-Mitchell put out a plea on the neighborhood social media site Next Door to get four volunteers to help five students and their families who were in dire need. Over the next 17 days, 128 volunteers donated enough food baskets, toiletry bags and gifts to help 25 families, Taylor-Mitchell said.

In early 2016, “inspired by how the community responded,” she began working on developing a program to help students all year long and founded Loch Raven Network, with a Room of Support to provide food, clothing and personal care items for Loch Raven High students in need. The network is made up of volunteers, local churches and community members, who donate money, in-kind donations and their time.

The group also now runs the Parkville Pantry at Parkville High School in conjunction with that school’s parent-teacher association. That pantry, which started in 2017, also carries pots and pans, bedding and alarm clocks for students to make it to school on time.

That year, she said, “We incorporated Loch Raven Network and became a nonprofit to make it easier for people to donate” and for like programs at other county schools to come into the network, because it became clear she “couldn’t clone” herself to start programs elsewhere.

“[By having incorporated] there is an advantage to that — there is a clear system for donations coming in and items going out,” Taylor-Mitchell said. “Donations are tax-deductible. Schools can become part of [Loch Raven Network’s] fundraising network. If we get buy-in from the principal, staff and get committed volunteers — who know the students — we can get that going as a core program … and talk to other schools about coming under the [Loch Raven Network] umbrella.”

Outside the network, similar efforts to stock “support rooms,” have been duplicated at other area schools, including Towson High and Dumbarton Middle schools.

At Loch Raven High, school social worker Caryn Putchat has seen firsthand the benefit the Room of Support offers students.

“Students are happy to know that there is such a room. It’s nice to tell them they can take whatever they need,” Putchat said. “It’s a wonderful resource for our families,” she said, adding that parents also take advantage of the Room of Support.

Giving back

Originally from Michigan, Taylor-Mitchell moved to Towson in 2000 with her son and husband, Brackie Mitchell, who has family in Baltimore County. All members of the family are committed to serving humanity. Brackie Mitchell is a professor of medicine in the Epidemiology and Public Health Department of the University of Maryland at Baltimore. Son Andrew works at the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He just returned from Nigeria, where he was doing HIV research, his mother said.

Taylor-Mitchell said she was the beneficiary of Michigan public schools and the “investment wise government makes in public education.” After doing really well on her ACT, the state paid her tuition to Kalamazoo College and the University of Michigan to earn a Ph.D in art history.

“The way you can express how good that system is, is to give back to it,” she said.”

Her mission going forward is to continue to expand the Loch Raven Network, by modeling to other schools how they can start programs providing students with basic needs.

“This deep-entrenched poverty is going to be a problem for many, many years,” she said. “Hopefully this can be handed from volunteer group to volunteer group to keep the effort going.”

Dumbarton Middle School Parent Teacher Student Association president Aimee Freeman said the PTSA has always helped students in need by providing grants to cover field trip fees, donating instruments for music class and paying for tickets to student social events over the years.

It wasn’t until members heard of Taylor-Mitchell’s work in spreading awareness about the rates of student homelessness and poverty in Baltimore County, however, that the group was inspired to reach out to the principal and ask for a list of supplies to donate for a similar effort at their middle school.

“We have an amazing community that has been so supportive of our school and PTSA, and I knew if we made them aware of the need and put the call out for donations, our community would step up to support our students,” Freeman said.

Dumbarton PTSA recently announced on its Facebook page that it would be setting up its own support room for Dumbarton students, who will be able to access snacks, toiletries and household items donated by the school’s community.

More than 17 percent of Dumbarton Middle students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals and the school has identified eight homeless students.

“There are students at every school in Baltimore County that are impacted by homelessness and severe poverty, and I am forever grateful to Laurie for her work in spreading awareness of this issue,” Freeman said.

Elizabeth Eck of Baltimore Sun Media Group contributed to this article.

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