OK, I’ll admit it. I was one of those people who assumed there were only a handful of decent schools in Baltimore. At the high school level there were your usual suspects: City College, Polytechnic, BSA, and, depending on the year, Western would join that group. The middle school options seemed even more sparse: Roland Park’s reputation precedes itself, and Mt. Washington has always been a strong performer, but outside of that, the viable options for those families who wanted a consistently high quality education for their students seemed limited at best.
This spring I took over as the director of admissions at City College, my alma mater, and one of the first things my supervisor explained to me was that my most important job was to recruit top students from all across the city. While I received his message, in my head, I was winking and nodding, thinking to myself: “OK, Got it.” Clearly he was saying the politically correct thing. but I assumed I knew what he “really meant.”
A large part of my job is to conduct “articulation visits,” traveling to middle schools to speak with interested 8th graders about their high school options. My first trip took me clear across the city to south Baltimore to visit Lakeland Elementary/Middle. From the outside I wasn’t impressed: an old brick building that looked like its best days were in the early 1970s. But as I walked up toward the building, something caught my attention. The squeals of kids on the playground for recess stopped me in my tracks. I paused for a second to watch them rip and run and play with an innocence I had forgotten could exist. It energized me for my speech, but more importantly it reminded of my ignorance: that even I, a kid who grew up on Baltimore’s west side and had people make assumptions about me, was capable of casting judgment on others from my newly minted middle class perch. I entered Lakeland, and the enthusiasm of the students was infectious. I instantly became excited to talk to them about high school and their futures, and they were even more excited to talk to me.
Over the past few months I’ve traveled to — and interacted with students at — more than 40 middle schools across the city, and each one of them has been remarkable in its own way: Margaret Brent with its beautiful art-infused classrooms and hallways; Hampstead Hill Academy and Patterson Park Public charter schools, each with an incredibly diverse student population who asked engaging and thoughtful questions about high school and what our school could offer their futures; the students from working class neighborhoods, such as Morell Park and Armstead Gardens, whose faces lit up with excitement at the idea of college access and new opportunities; the well-dressed and mature young men at Banneker Blake Academy and Baltimore Collegiate school for boys and their studious sisters next door at Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson; the exceptional students at KIPP Ujima, who were excited to share with me that they were completing high school level science experiments; the massive group of students from Hamilton, who stayed after to ask more questions about the music program; the cheerful students at Tunbridge who affirm each other every morning with positive messages; and the countless other ambitious students I’ve met on the east and west sides of the city.
For the past few weeks I’ve cringed as I’ve watched Fox 45’s “Project Baltimore,” which claims to expose the inner workings of Baltimore City schools. And while I know there are many areas in which our schools need vast improvements, my journeys across the city have also exposed the inner workings of city schools and revealed that there is an awful lot to be proud of.
The reality is that there are good schools, good students and good teachers all around this city. I know because I’m lucky enough to see so many of them every day. Their excitement for learning is infectious, and in a city in the midst of so much violence and uncertainty, it is refreshing to know that there is boundless hope for the future — not just in a few schools but seated in classrooms all across the city.
Sedrick Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of admissions at Baltimore City College and a doctoral student at UMBC.