The education landscape has changed drastically in the last couple years—both in Baltimore and nationally. Locally, the biggest drivers of change have been the economy and the momentous tenure of Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso. When Dr. Alonso accepted his post in the fall of 2007, few could have predicted the vast changes in policy—and results—that would follow. He decentralized the system, cutting 20 percent of the jobs on North Avenue and putting more power in the hands of principals. He initiated a host of new programs, including 12 "transformation" schools and an overhaul of the schools' food program (see our story on Bragg Farm inside). And he increased opportunities for parents to choose which public school their children will attend: This year, 97 percent of 8th graders chose where they would go for high school. Test scores and graduation rates are up and dropouts are down. But Dr. Alonso overstepped in June, hiring former School Board chair Brian Morris for an unadvertised $175,000-a-year job as Deputy CEO for Operations. In a revealing Q & A here, Dr. Alonso acknowledges the mistake and reflects on his tenure. The improvements to city schools and the faltering economy have combined to create difficult times for private and parochial schools in the region, many of which report declining enrollment and one of which, Towson Catholic, recently announced that it was closing. (In one candid, if light-hearted, comment, Dr. Alonso said he wanted to put local private schools "out of business.") Broadly, today's students face a more complex world than any generation before them. As our profiles of five graduating Towson High School seniors reveal, new technology and shifting social and moral standards have altered their lives in ways many adults can't fathom. It's reassuring, then, that so many of them seem capable, confident, and ready to lead Maryland into the future.
The complicated lives of five Towson High School seniors.
By Evan Serpick
Bare feet scramble up and down the marble steps of the Tremont Grand in downtown Baltimore, as dozens of elegantly-dressed young women have abandoned their too-tall heels to alternate between the teeming dance floor upstairs and the catered buffet below. Young men admire their crisp rentals in the gilded mirrors, fidgeting with their cummerbunds and bow ties as if they were fashioned on Mars. Wide-eyed excitement radiates from every face: These Towson High School seniors have waited for this night all their lives.
Mariah Voelkel flits from circle to circle, frequently yanking at her long green gown to keep from stepping on it. She says hello to Emma Hull, who sits at a table on the first floor, talking and laughing easily with a half-dozen friends, most of whom she worked with as stage manager for the school's plays.
Aspiring diplomat Janelle Asiedu knows Mariah and Emma from the AP classes they took together, but she's upstairs, dancing with a small, diverse group. Across the room, Brendan Harman dances near the center of a larger group of friends. Almost two dozen of them, including friends from the lacrosse team, will chip in to stay at a house he rented in Ocean City for senior week.
One of Harman's teammates Mac Caltrider, skipped the prom altogether. He hated going to school and is anxious to graduate and move on with life. Unlike most of his classmates in the large, middle-class Baltimore County public school, Caltrider isn't going to college next year. He's joining the Marines, and he could wind up much farther afield than any of his peers.
Adults often assume, given the advent of texting, Facebook, and the Internet, that today's teens live lives and speak languages they can't imagine. We tagged along with five Towson High School seniors as they neared graduation and found some surprising—even disturbing—trends, but were also heartened to find the core themes of adolescence remarkably unchanged. The kids, for the most part, are alright.
The sun is just beginning to burn off a thick morning mist as Mariah Voelkel pulls into Towson High School's student parking lot at 7:15. She's not due in class for 35 minutes, but the bright-eyed teen comes early every day to volunteer with the school's Allied softball team. (Allied sports teams are made up of special needs athletes from Baltimore County public schools.)
As with about a quarter of her class, Voelkel is in the senior internship program, so her classes end at 11:45. She has 45 minutes to grab lunch and get to her internship at Ridge Ruxton Elementary School, where she helps teach students with disabilities. She leaves at 3:30 p.m. to get to her job at Sports Her Way, a sporting goods store, where she works as a shift manager from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., then goes home, eats dinner with her mom and does homework. She tries to be in bed by 11.
The schedule is insane, Voelkel admits, but it serves a purpose: Her father died last June and the 17-year-old says keeping busy is essential for her sanity. "I knew if I had downtime, I would be a wreck," she says. "I just concentrate on what I need to do."
Also, Voelkel's best friend barely survived a car accident in 2007, leaving her with the physical acuity of a toddler. For summer vacation, Voelkel planned to go to Hawaii with her friend, a gift from the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
Relentlessly upbeat and social, Voelkel's large family (she's the youngest of six) and broad network of friends have helped her endure what could have been a nightmarish year. "There are groups here, but I hang out with everybody," she says. "People come together when someone needs you."
Still, she's painfully aware that few of her classmates can relate to her struggles. "People are like 'Oh, I'm so sorry, I know how you feel,'" she says. "I'm like 'Wow, if you were in my body and knew what I was going through, it would be difficult.'"
Voelkel, who has a niece with special needs, will attend Stevenson University in the fall on a partial scholarship from Baltimore County, on the condition that she returns to teach special needs students in County schools. She's excited to move on, but the end of high school has been difficult.
"It hard now with graduation and prom and everything," she says. "My dad always told me, 'You know what you want to do, just go for it.' So I am."
Janelle Asiedu had to do a lot of explaining when she started at Towson High School. "I got a lot of questions about my hair," she says, laughing. "Everybody's like 'How often do you wash your hair? Do you put oil in it?' I'm just like, 'what?'"
The child of a Ghanaian father and African-American mother who met as students at University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Asiedu is one of about 50 students in her graduating class of 750 in the magnet program. She and her family weren't happy with the schools near her home, including Randallstown High School and Milford Mill High School.
"The schools in my home area aren't the best," says Asiedu, whose older sister was in the magnet program at Western Tech. "Towson's a great school, great teachers."
Asiedu rode a bus for an hour each day to get to school during her first two years. The weird looks and odd questions made the transition from her local middle school difficult. It got so bad that she wanted to leave. "It was just too much," she says. "But my parents really wanted me to stick it out."
In Asiedu's sophomore year, she and the only other THS student from her neighborhood founded a diversity club to share minority experiences in the school, which is 75 percent white. The club drew students from the Middle East and India, as well as African Americans, and helped Asiedu find connections.
Ironically, over the course of her high school career, Asiedu found that more and more of her close friends were white. "With all the G&T and AP classes, I'm usually the only black student or one of two," she says. "So, I don't have a lot of black friends, which I get criticism about from black students."
As she got closer to her white classmates, Asiedu noticed some startling differences in their lives. "Mostly parenting styles," she says with a laugh. "My dad's more strict. They would say, 'My dad made me breakfast this morning' and I'm like 'What?!'" I think the fact that my parents called for us to be independent helped me to be disciplined."
Like Voelker, Asiedu is in the internship program. During the spring of her senior year, she took AP English, AP Economics, AP Spanish and Internet and Principals in the morning and, in the afternoon, took the MTA bus into the city for her internship at American Friends Service Committee, where she documented the experiences of Somali refugees in East Baltimore.
In the fall, Asiedu will attend the honors program at University of Maryland College Park, with a plan to major in International Relations and build a career in diplomacy. After the prom, which she attended with a friend from church, and graduation, Asiedu went on a trip to Virginia, avoiding senior week in Ocean City. "We do a time share," she says. "Ocean City's a little too crazy for me."
Like Janelle Asiedu, Emma Hull experienced culture shock when she came to Towson. Just before middle school, Hull's family moved from Baltimore city's Hamilton to a house near the high school.
"In the city, no one cared if you had the right jeans because everybody's parents were just trying to make ends meet," she says. "When I got here, suddenly, it mattered if you had an L.L. Bean backpack or that you were wearing jeans and not skirts."
And Hull, whose mother is a mentor for elementary school teachers, found that because she didn't fit in with the "popular" kids, she fell in with other social outcasts, many of whom were into music and theater. "That's where all the weird kids get pushed," she says. "The painful thing for me was like, 'Oh, nobody else wants to talk to me so I have to go hang out with these kids.'"
As it turned out, exploring theater exposed Hull's gifts for playwriting, acting, singing, and stage-managing. She sings in Towson's chamber choir and is stage manager for the school's theater productions. On weekends, she works for a group called Baltimore's Best Entertainers, playing Hannah Montana and Dora the Explorer for parties. Late in her senior year, Hull won a contest held by Centerstage and had actors from the theater do a staged reading of a play she wrote, The Peacock's Plume.
"It's about working backstage and the things that might happen," she says. "The stage manager dumps her boyfriend, who is the head of tech, over a headset. He revolts a little and starts messing with the show—he turns on 'Dancing Queen' at one point."
In the fall, Hull will attend George Mason University, outside of D.C., where she hopes to double-major in English and Stage Management. The grim economy has pushed Hull and some classmates to think about marketable skills when choosing schools and majors, more than in the past.
"With an English degree, I can always go teach," says Hull, adding that some friends have had trouble finding summer jobs this year. "I want to go into theater and that's a little bit more shaky."
Regardless of her ultimate career, Hull is eager to broaden her horizons. "I'm kind of excited just to get out of Towson for a little bit," she says. "I'm ready to see new places, meet new people. I'm most excited about being able to see that I can stand by myself and be my own person."
If Janelle Asiedu came to Towson High School as an outsider, Brendan Harman is the consummate insider. He lives in Stoneleigh, the mannerly suburban neighborhood that begins a few blocks from the school. "I have five friends on this block and the next," he says. "You go a block over, I have three more friends. You can play sports all the time, go to the pool. Maryland Country Club is two blocks away."
Harman's a standout player on Towson's soccer and lacrosse teams and, until this year, ran indoor track in the winter. Like Asiedu and Voelkel, he's in the internship program. At 10:55, after morning classes, he drives his Toyota Camry to Hunt Valley, where he works at Heritage Financial Consultants. He leaves at 1:45 to return to school for practice.
"I like business finance, the whole aspect of money," says Harman, who hopes for a career in financial planning and accepted an offer to work for Heritage this summer. "And I like dealing with people, so this combines two things that I really like."
After practice, Harman comes home and either has dinner with his dad, stepmom and half brother, or with his mom and stepdad, depending on the day of the week. Then he does his homework, usually with an open laptop next to his notebooks. "I'll have it just sitting there, with Facebook open," he says.
The advent of text messaging, camera phones, and websites like Facebook haven't changed the daily lives of teenagers as drastically as some concerned adults may think. Harman says he's recently used Facebook to organize a group of seventeen students sharing a house during senior week in Ocean City. While, like all students in this story, he acknowledges that there is the occasional incident of indiscreet cell phone photos being forwarded around, most often, the new technologies have just streamlined universal high school experiences. "Texting is big," says Harman. "Just a way to communicate basic stuff."
"Texting is the new form of bullying," suggests Asiedu. "The new phone bullying is just spreading rumors and gossip."
The students may also ease fears of widespread abuse of hard drugs among teens. While they all acknowledge that experimentation with alcohol and marijuana is common—Harman estimates 70 percent of his classmates have tried pot—other drugs are rare. "There are people who use cocaine and other drugs, but not many," says Harman. "The people who take it too far, you tend to not hang out with as much."
Social cliques are still the norm in high school, and, as ever, they often break down along racial and class lines. "We get along but we don't really interact," Harman says of different groups at THS.
Dating seems to have declined among teenagers, though it seems to have been replaced with more frequent one-off sexual encounters. None of the students interviewed were in a relationship and Harman estimates that 95 percent of students in his class are single. "We hang out with a big group of girls," he says of his male friends. "People want freedom. If you're connected with someone, you're kind of committed."
Harman's basement is a virtual shrine to University of Maryland sports, adorned with flags, banners, and tickets stubs from the many Terps soccer, basketball, football, and lacrosse games he's attended with his family. His grandfather, stepmom, stepsister, and uncle all attended the school, and Harman too will head to College Park in the fall.
"It started to sink in around New Year's, when it was actually 2009, and you realize, 'Wow, this is the year I'm going to graduate,'" he says. "I welcome the next chapter."
Mac Caltrider also grew up in Stoneleigh, just blocks away from Harman, and both played on Towson's lacrosse team, but the two have had very different high school experiences.
"I hated going to school," says Caltrider. "A lot of my teachers were kind of assholes, I guess. That got to me so much. I hated it."
As soon as he was allowed to do so, Caltrider applied for early release from classes at THS. On a typical day this year, he left school at 11:45 and worked at a warehouse for Sports Her Way, the same store where Mariah Voelkel is a shift manager. (They know each other, but not well, and they work in different buildings.)
After graduation, Caltrider plans to enlist in the Marines. "Basically, anyone who ever talks to me says, 'Go to college first,'" he says. "I just don't want to go back to school. I know college would be a lot different than high school, but I don't think I would really like it."
Although his Marine recruiter tells Caltrider his test scores qualify him to train to be a linguist, he wants to be in infantry, with the goal of being a scout sniper or on a reconnaissance force. "It seems a lot more exciting than going to class for another four years," he says. And despite the obvious risks of being shipped to Iraq or Afghanistan, he's not concerned about death. "It's not worth worrying about," he says. "If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen."
While Caltrider had a rough time coping with classes for three years, he says things improved senior year and that he'll miss the social aspects of high school. After going to Boys Latin for middle school and ninth grade, he asked his parents, a lawyer dad and teacher mom, to switch to public school. "There's not a wide, diverse group at Boys Latin," he says. "They're all the same."
At Towson, he found that broad group of friends. Still, he stands out. Besides being one of two members of his class headed for the military, he doesn't have a Facebook page. "I think I'm the only kid who doesn't have one," he cracks.
He chose not to go to prom, partially because of the expense of tickets, a tux, and a limo, but also because he recently broke up with his girlfriend.
This summer, Caltrider will continue to work at Sports Her Way and prepare to enter basic training. Eventually, the 18-year-old hopes to become a firefighter. "It just looks like I would really enjoy doing that," he says. "I like to do crazy and exciting things. I can never imagine just sitting at a desk."
A Q&A with Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Andrès Alonso
Q: Two years after you arrived in Baltimore, how do you feel about your progress?
A: We've made tremendous progress by any metric that we look at. We had the first increase in student enrollment in four decades. We introduced meaningful choice for parents in the system: Roughly 97 percent of our 8th graders were able to choose a high school. We created 12 new schools in the last two years. We had an almost spectacular year last year in grades 3 to 8 scores, increases in graduation, and a reduction in dropouts. This year, we haven't released the 3 to 8 scores yet, but we had a remarkable increase in grades 1 and 2 scores and kindergarten readiness scores. And 94 percent of our seniors met the state criteria for graduation, which, in the context of what's happened in the district in the past, is an extraordinary rate of achievement. If we can do that again, then the conversation about the district has to change completely, because we go from a district that has traditionally been thought of as underachieving or struggling to meet the needs of a highly at-risk population, to a district that is progressing faster than any district in the country. We are, at some point, going to be looked at as a model for other districts in the nation.
Q: How do you think such drastic changes were achieved in such a short time?
A: I don't think that it is all due to what happens in one year. I think things build, that sometimes you reach a tipping point. I think that there are structural elements and process elements such as time for planning, improvements in leadership, a different sense of accountability, all those things matter and can lead to greater results. I also think that there has been an extraordinary investment in education in the city over time and it would be illogical for it not to pay off at some point. So, my sense is, and I said that I was gratified in year one, I knew we were going to get improvements, I could not have predicted the level of improvements that we saw. If you couple that with the fact that parents are now coming back into the system after leaving for so many years, and then you have educators who are also coming back into the system. This was a school system that, in the past, opened every single year with vacancies, meaning that we couldn't fill the classroom with qualified teachers. If we're now having to turn people away, it means that we are in a different context in terms of the ability to make progress.
Q: Between the improvements in public schools and the economy, I think a lot of parents are probably taking a second look at public education.
A: What has increased the enrollment are two things. A greater percent of our parents are choosing to stay. In the past, there was a hemorrhaging, as in many parents came in kindergarten and by the end of first grade, took their kids out. Or they were in our elementary schools and took them out when they sent them to middle school. Or were in middle school and went outside for high school. We increased in all those metrics this year. And then, secondly, we're holding onto more kids. We will have 1,200 fewer kids dropping out this year than two years ago. If you hold onto to kids, then enrollment should be increasing because the largest class is always the kindergarten class. So, if you simply do a better job of holding onto what you have, you're gonna get better. And I think part of what we're doing is exactly that, we're giving kids more choices, we're giving parents more choices, we're working with individual kids in ways that release some of the stress that schools have felt in the past. And with new settings, parents are taking a second look. I have a Montessori school two blocks from here, and this is not one of the better-class neighborhoods in the city, and they have a 200-student waiting list, because it's a program that did not exist before that parents want to buy into. And the name of the game is to give parents what they want, and what parents want is a sense that their kids are safe, that they're being cared for, that they're being challenged and enriched and given an education that maybe they themselves didn't have access to, in some cases, or in other cases, the kind of education that they nostalgically look back to, as in, once upon a time this was an exemplary educational system. If they're demanding that we be that way again, I think we need to redefine what it means to be an exemplary school system, because times have changed, but I think that we need to meet high standards.
Q: How much progress do you think has been made in changing the reputation of city schools?
A: I think that there is a change in the conversation. Sometimes it's around individual schools. I have sectors of the city where I can't find enough room because there is a huge demand for schools. I have other sectors where the demand is for different types of schools and my strong sense is that if we give new settings, the students will come back. The name of the game is giving parents what they want. For the school system to be thought of as competitive with the suburbs, with the private schools, that's going to take time. I think there is a clear sense out there that the system is not stagnating anymore. As we improve schools for the kids we have, it will change how city schools are perceived. I look forward to putting private schools and parochial schools out of business.
Q: Were you surprised by the public and media outcry at the hiring of Brian Morris, and do you have any regrets about the hiring process?
A: I was not surprised at the questions surrounding the hiring of Brian Morris. I anticipated questions and criticism, and I had expected that if I pointed to the need for the position, the quality of Brian's skills and his service to the district, and the outcomes that would follow, that the criticism would subside. I was willing to spend personal and professional capital, because I thought it would pay off. Ultimately, it was a decision made wearing blinders—I was focused on putting together a team that would be more successful in supporting schools, and I felt Brian was a key missing piece. I did not anticipate the attention to things that were not about his public record, which immediately became toxic. And look, it's my job to anticipate everything. Someday, someone will write a history of our schools, and I hope Brian gets his due as a public servant, rather than the type of attention that you are asking about. I certainly regret the outcome here. I thought we were doing the right thing for kids. Then it became about the adults. It's made me more careful about the hiring process.
Q: How will the federal stimulus funds affect the school system?
A: The Governor should get tremendous credit for making our stimulus funding available more quickly than any other state in the nation. It has allowed us to avoid wholesale layoffs and closings. Because of the stimulus, I don't anticipate any layoffs of teachers or administrators, but there will be a continuing reduction of the central office, which has been reduced by 15 to 20 percent each of my first two years. Decentralization has allowed us to improve the settings for students, to create schools that are responsive to the needs of students.
Q: What are your priorities for the '09-'10 school year?
A: We need to solidify our gains and continue to provide a lot of support for our students and teachers, continue to improve service to kids, parents, and schools. Parents want new settings. We may need to close some schools, open new schools. Also, we want to focus on enrichment in our classrooms, to go beyond English and math, and toward arts and science, to increase the rigor of instruction, to push Algebra into the middle schools, and to introduce more advanced-placement classes in high schools. We've introduced so many new procedures, we need to let them work in support of the schools, recognize what are our best practices, continue to engage parents, and continue to be receptive to what they tell us they need.
Q: What impact does an improved school system have on the city and the region?
A: Clearly, there is a symbiotic relationship between schools and neighborhoods in the city. Just as we are at a tipping point in turning around some of our schools, at some point, we become part of the tipping point in improving particular neighborhoods. We want students who will graduate and be ready for the job market and college, who will make great citizens of Baltimore.