Oakenshawe parents slow to embrace planned school in Waverly

Waverly Elementary/Middle School Principal Michelle Ferris stands in the excavation site for the new, $25 million school that is scheduled to open in mid-to-late 2013.
Waverly Elementary/Middle School Principal Michelle Ferris stands in the excavation site for the new, $25 million school that is scheduled to open in mid-to-late 2013. (Photo by Karen Jackson)

Oakenshawe students are zoned for nearby Waverly Elementary/Middle School, where a $25 million replacement school is slated to open by the end of 2013.

But children from Oakenshawe are nowhere to be found at the current campus, located in two buildings a block apart.


"There's zero students from Oakenshawe," said Mark Counselman, president of the Oakenshawe Improvement Association and a father of three.

Andrew Stiller, the school's community school site coordinator, closed his fingers in the shape of a goose egg, and said there haven't been any Oakenshawe children attending the school in his three years there.


"Oakenshawe's tough," Stiller said.

Convincing parents from Oakenshawe to send their children to public school in Waverly instead of to charter, private or parochial schools is emerging as a challenge for supporters of the new school. Supporters say there's a perception that the school lacks resources, discipline and a rigorous curriculum and is in a crime-prone area.

That's why, more than a year before the rebuilt school opens, Waverly parents, area community leaders and elected officials are already hard at work trying to change any such impressions. A steering committee of educators and residents is being formed to make sure the school will have the academic programs to match its state-of-the-art facility.

And, several area parents have founded a support group to help market the school, as parents in Charles Village and Hampden have done for their public schools

Crossing Greenmount Avenue gives some parents pause, said Kedri Metzger, co-founder of Waverly School Friends and Neighbors, a support group similar to the Village Parents, which advocates for Barclay and Margaret Brent public schools in Charles Village. Her front porch overlooks the Waverly school, and her son, Ariel, 5, will attend kindergarten there this fall.

"It's a big leap for people to think about anything on the other side of Greenmount," Metzger said.

"We're trying to get families to take a second look," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who will serve on the newly formed steering committee. "We need to reach out to the whole (school) zone."

"That is absolutely on our minds," said Karen DeCamp, director of neighborhood programs for the Greater Homewood Community Corp., which helped organize the steering committee. "We are mobilizing around the idea that everyone ought to feel comfortable and happy sending their children to the Waverly School."

But they will have to convince people like Counselman, the Oakenshawe president. His oldest son, Matthew, 5, will attend private school this fall, not Waverly Elementary.

"It's nothing against Waverly. It's the system," said Counselman, who took issue with the school system in general and said he can afford to send Matthew to Calvert School, a prestigious private school in Tuscany-Canterbury.

For the school system, the new Waverly school, which principal Michelle Ferris said would roughly double student capacity to 440, is important not only as the first one built in the city in 14 years, but as the starting point for a systemic review of city schools to determine which ones should be closed, renovated or rebuilt.

"Waverly is just one example of how we are going about looking at our buildings," said Edie House-Foster, a school system spokeswoman.

But at the community level, the school is an example of parents coming together to promote urban schools.

'Bad rap'

Ferris, principal of Waverly Elementary/Middle for the past three years, conceded that some parents are nervous about sending their children there.

"There's been some of that," Ferris said.

And, she noted that "one of our dads" was Tavon Fredrick, who was shot to death during a home invasion in Waverly while his teenaged daughter was in the house on May 24.

But she said parents' hesitation "hasn't been so much about safety as about the quality and rigor" of the curriculum.

Ferris said the middle school in particular "has a bad rap," though suspensions have dropped by 60 percent in the past year and students' scores on state-mandated reading and math tests in third through eighth grades rose to "a little above average."

"I think one of the things we're trying to counteract in marketing is perception; fears that maybe aren't completely warranted," said Metzger, an immigration attorney for World Relief.

"I think Oakenshawe is going to take a little more work," Metzger said.

Counselman is happy that Waverly is "moving in the right direction," but he said he wants more for his children than slightly above-average test scores.

"Reading at grade level is not a proper marker," he said.

Metzger's group is arranging get-togethers in Oakenshawe and other communities to talk to prospective parents.

The group is also asking parents, teachers, administrators and older students what programs and personnel they want at the school.

Ferris has been eager to help and seems open to ideas by parents, such as having paraprofessionals help out in kindergarten classes, and making sure discipline is stressed at the new school, Metzger said.

The steering committee will include subcommittees on curriculum, marketing and fundraising to ensure that the school will have quality academic programs to match its state-of-the-art setting, Metzger said.

And, she noted that the school has been approved for a citywide advanced academic program, like Ingenuity or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The steering committee will talk about what such a program would serve the Waverly school best, Metzger said.

The goal of the committee is to ensure that the school is "appealing to middle-class parents," said Metzger, a 35-year-old mother of three. "If public schools can't draw in middle class families, they struggle."

Hitting reset

Both Metzger and DeCamp argue that having a high-quality school will increase home property values.

DeCamp said having a steering committee "gives us an opportunity to hit reset and take a long look at the programs. We want to make sure the programming is of the same quality as the school building."

Ferris agreed.

"The more people we have involved, the more ideas we can toss around," she said.

Metzger said the steering committee would talk about whether to rename the school to give it more identity. One name that has come up a lot is "Waverly Green," because the new facility is planned as a LEED-certified "green" school.

Metzger and her co-founders, Marshalynne Seavers, of Wilson Park, and Paul Harlston, of Lakeside, plan to create logos and T-shirts with the Facebook-style theme, "I friended Waverly. Have you?"

"It's a good opportunity to invest in the school," Metzger said.

And, she said parents can get in on the ground level of a brand new school without any of the renovation and expansion issues that parents at other public schools in the city face when they organize as volunteers for projects such as painting classrooms and upgrading bathrooms.


"We're not going to have to deal with any of that," Metzger said. "We can focus on other things that have an academic impact on our kids."

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