While many Baltimore students were being treated to handshakes and smiles from city leaders to kick off their first week of school, a group of students at Dr. Rayner Browne Academy used their face time with city officials to share problems that are troubling their community.
A group of about 10 Rayner Browne middle-school students met with Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Warren Branch last week, and the city leaders got an earful from students who described problems including trash and gunshell casings that litter their walk to school, as well as the drug dealing that takes place in the East Baltimore neighborhood's vacant houses.
"My first day of school was not a feel-good, go-shake-a-hand photo opportunity," Young said of the meeting. "These kids talked about everything. I was in awe of the level of knowledge that they had about their communities. I even apologized to them, because I felt that we, as elected officials, had let them down."
The students who met with Young were part of the Elev8 Summer Splash program, a six-week program in which students at Rayner Browne participated in civic activities, which included exposure to financial, vocational, social and professional skills.
Elev8 is program is a national initiative focused on middle-school enrichment, with programs in Chicago, Oakland and New Mexico. Four schools in Baltimore City participate.
Part of Rayner Browne's summer program this year was to take a walking tour of the school community — which encompasses the Perkins/Middle East and Clifton-Berea neighborhoods — and have students take note of the worst of their neighborhoods. They then wrote letters to City Hall detailing their observations.
In the letters, students outlined how "we need to put recycling bags all over Baltimore City and trash cans because people throw trash all over the street." Other letters said "we need to rebuild abandoned houses. … I see people on the street because they have no place to live" and "some kids are not going home after school, so we need a rec center."
Seventh-grade student Gregory Legge was among those who wrote letters to City Council members this summer and said he felt lucky to have the opportunity to meet with leaders.
"A lot of students don't care what the community looks like, they just want a place to live," Gregory said. He added that his biggest complaint was vacant houses. They make him feel "empty," the 12-year-old said, because the "houses are empty."
"Through their eyes, they were looking at hopelessness and despair," Young said. He said he encouraged students to write to state leaders, and even the president, about their concerns, and promised another walking tour with the students and representatives from city agencies who can help them.
Christine Acquarulo, a mental health therapist who works with Elev8, said the students committed to the task of civic engagement and became comfortable vocalizing their concerns when "they realized that it would really have an impact on their lives."
Gregory said he was happy to meet with city leaders and was satisfied because they said they would fight for more funding and crack down on homeowners who don't take care of their properties.
More importantly, Gregory said, he felt "warm and tingly," because "somebody actually listened to what I have to say."