On Wednesday, April 9th, The New Century School had the honor of hosting the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance‘s annual event, “Meet the Big Kids’ Parents.” This event featured “local parents from neighborhoods all over the city, each with at least one child older than age 8 years, [to provide] the inside scoop on the challenges and benefits of parenting the school-aged child in our urban environment.” TNCS was perfectly situated to host this one, with plans to open its very own middle school in the Fall of 2016.
A synopsis is provided here if you missed the event or just want to revisit some of these important themes.
The event was very well organized and designed to accommodate working parents. A happy hour with complimentary light fare and wine gave attendees time to arrive at a leisurely pace, mingle, and recharge before getting down to business. The turnout was high—how to raise healthy, happy older children in downtown Baltimore is evidently foremost on the minds of city parents! DBFA solicited questions for the panel in advance to make sure everyone’s concerns were addressed in a timely fashion. So how do they do it? How do downtown parents manage “without yards, two-car garages, and shopping malls”?
To get things started, panelists explained what it is about Baltimore that has them committed to city living. “Has to be the diversity,” said a Federal Hill dad who grew up in a small New England town. The wealth of resources, such as easy-to-access harp lessons, was another advantage he cited. One mother expressed her love of the walkability of her Fell’s Point neighborhood and joked that it’s also the perfect excuse to prolong the process of getting her son a driver’s license. She also appreciates the sense of community pervading her neighborhood. Another Fell’s Point mom echoed loving walkability and that her pre-teen and teenage daughters can travel about independently to pick up groceries and snacks or go browse the local comics shop. She also appreciates the breadth of school choice available in Baltimore that allowed her to pick just the right schools to amplify and enhance her daughters’ particular strengths. A Canton mom expressed that her and her husband always assumed they’d move out of the city once children arrived, but found they preferred to stay and have been thrilled with their decision because of good schooling and the confidence and empowerment that city life has given their sons. A Federal Hill mom likes the small-town-in-a-city feel that is uniquely Baltimore. Neighbors look out for neighbors, and everyone knows each other, which creates a closely knit community as well as a sort of safety net. Another Federal Hill mom also appreciates the familiarity of her neighborhood and its strong sense of community. She knows “the shopkeepers, the restaurant owners, the teachers,” she said and considers giving that up to live elsewhere not worth the price.
Meet the Big Kids’ Parents: Questions for the Panel
Questions were sorted by topic, and each panel member was invited to provide his or her own take on the issue. The panel comprised both parents and their kids, who ranged in age from 10 to 15 years. Their responses have been edited and condensed for (relative) brevity.
Where do your kids friends live? In your neighborhood or do you have to drive them around town for play dates?
Friends tend to be within walking distance, fortunately. Although Baltimore middle and high schools do not follow neighborhood zoning, meaning that students at a given school have come from all over the city, neighborhood kids have grown up together and just naturally gravitate to each other. That, and moms say they made “blood pacts” (which drew a lot of laughter and sympathetic head nodding) to make city living work and have stuck together from infant play groups right up through middle school and beyond.
One of the best things about Baltimore is the diversity. That being said, our child has started to ask for play dates with children who come from a much different background and we are not sure if we feel comfortable allowing our child to go to someone’s house that may not have some of the same rules, level of parental supervision, etc. How did you handle this?
This question really isn’t unique to Baltimore or even to cities, for that matter. Parents are going to vet the households of their kids’ potential playmates before sending them over. “Know the parents; know the kids,” said a Fell’s Point mom. It’s that simple. And, if you can’t always achieve a level of familiarity you’re comfortable with, meet for playdates on neutral ground, such as at the park. Backgrounds might be vastly different, but diligent parents aren’t unique to one type of family or another, said another mom. You can kind of sense it. The resident dad said the distrust is mutual. Crossing boundaries is hard, he said, but Baltimore and the country at large can’t make social progress until we learn how to explore the other side.
We moved across the city to a larger row house for more space. So space is not an issue, however, there are times we do wish we had a garage and yard. How do your kids feel about not having a yard? Where do they play? At your local park or front/back yard if you have one?
Green spaces abound in Baltimore, as the panelists enthusiastically attested. Baltimore parks are basically like expanded back yards, according to the kids, where everyone meets up and plays and hangs out. Then again, this is a city, and some kids choose the more urban atmosphere of the alley, where they can play soccer and lacrosse, for example. These cosmopolitan kids know how to warn of approaching cars and to stay safe. Many of these kids have never known a different environment and don’t experience the lack of a back yard as any kind of disadvantage in the first place. “Kids know what they know,” in the words of one mom. Sidewalks are fun places to play, too! And, as she put it, “Yeah, [so and so] might have a great backyard, but does he have a water taxi?” Great point!
Our children love all of the fun attractions and events that take place in the city and are truly happy. As they get older, do you feel like your children were happy with their urban lifestyle?
The kids fielded this one, exclusively, and very enthusiastically. Simply put, they love living in the city! Far from outgrowing what the city has to offer, they mentioned the wealth of fun, stimulating things there are to do at any and all ages. They also enjoy feeling sorta special à la “That Girl”! They’re urbane, shopping and going out to eat along the harbor in gaggles and thoroughly enjoying it. “Where else can you do that?” asked one girl rhetorically. They know how to get around with public transportation to school or activities. They’re savvy and independent, and these qualities will serve them well through adolescence into adulthood.
Have you had problems with crime in school?
In fact, big school-related violent crimes seem to happen outside the city. Petty crimes such as having a cell phone stolen at a bus stop are easily avoided, said the parents. Teach your kids a few common sense practices, like don’t walk around the city with your valuables on display, they said. The kids spoke up to say they feel safe, despite not always going to school in “the best neighborhoods.” As must be the case in any U.S. school these days, they are coached on what to do in a variety of adverse circumstances.
How do you deal with freedom/extending the “leash”? I feel like if we were living in the suburbs I’d be able to say to my oldest go out and play . . . but in the city you can’t really do that. Any suggestions for letting him feel like I’m trusting him to do more but still being safe?
A Fell’s Point mom turned this question on its head and made a really great point in so doing. “I feel like we can extend the leash more because we live in the city,” she said. The assumption tends to be that cities are dangerous and suburbs are safe, but relevant data hardly bears that out. City neighbors are closer in proximity and more likely to be looking out for each other, for example. Another great point she made is that with so much to do in the city, kids are less likely to go looking for trouble. Another parent pointed out that this generation of parents is much more cautious to begin with; it’s not that the city is inherently more dangerous for kids. Finally, one mom shared her strategies for reeling out freedom gradually. As your child successfully handles each milestone, he or she is granted a little more at a time, such as 15 minutes of independent exploration at the aquarium and then meeting back up/checking in at the cafeteria. “It’s really just another version,” she said, of the same kind of freedom suburban parents give. Kids can go three or four houses away to play but probably aren’t going all the way across town by themselves.
Where do your afterschool/weekend activities take place? Suburbs? In the city/close by?
This is one area where Baltimore has the hands down advantage. The variety and quality of available extracurricular activities is staggering. Whether your kids are into art, music, drama—whatever—there’s plenty to do! And much of it is even free. With sports, the answer is a little different, according to these parents, but that’s just the way it is no matter where you live. With competitive sports, you’re almost certainly going to have do some driving because the teams travel to compete, which requires both a commitment and a bit of a lifestyle change to keep up with weekday practices and games on weekends. It’s a decision your family and your kids will probably have to make. “Don’t get into ice hockey!” warned one mom, who finds herself driving regularly up and down the east coast, though it started as “Hockey in the Hood” (more laughter). This situation is not unique to the city, each parent was quick to remind the audience, but is the state of travel leagues in the suburbs also.
Where we grew up in the suburbs, we had great sports programs. Are there many options in the city?
Without the travel league aspect, there are plenty of kids’ sports facilities in the city, probably more than one in your neighborhood alone! Coppermine and DuBurns came up repeatedly. The Lingo Leap (where we were all sitting, coincidentally) also offers plenty of fun, unique ways to engage in physical activity!
Our child does Fitness Fun and Games after school. Are there any options for older children?
This, again, is far from a troublesome issue. One working mom explained that her daughters like to hang out at the library after school with their friends. They get their homework done there as a bonus! Each school also usually offers really terrific afterschool options, which vary from tennis to volleyball to the Audubon Society to mandolin lessons. This, said one mom, is quite different from county schools who don’t offer such school-based afterschool clubs. Another parent suggested making the afterschool offerings a criterion for choosing the middle school and high school that’ll best suit your child.
Schools (the Biggie!)
We were lucky enough to get into a great public charter school. It runs from preschool to 8th grade. But now I’m already starting to worry about high school. (My oldest is ONLY in 1st grade but I’m a planner!) Have you been through the high school process? What are your thoughts? I think that is weighing heavily on my mind as we start thinking about our next (forever) home.
The high school process is not easy, said parents and kids alike, but it’s well worth it—moreover you’re amply prepared for it in middle school. Baltimore is unique in “matching” students to schools much like is done for medical students looking for a residency hospital. There are no neighborhood-zoned schools any longer. Each child picks five schools and ranks them according to preference, then makes his or choice among those that awarded acceptance. It’s a bit complicated, but it means that your child goes to school where he or she wants to, which must make a dramatic difference in the overall high school experience.
Unfortunately, there really aren’t that many great ones to choose from, currently. Of course we have great private schools, but public options really narrow in the high school realm. The kids, however, explained “shadowing” at various highs schools and that, instead of being disappointed by their lack of choice, were almost equally enamored of each school they toured. Their excitement for high school was palpable.
As if reading the collective audience mind, the Federal Hill dad spoke next and “threw some numbers” on the problem, because many of us were probably wondering if our kids would be facing the same glorious choices that the panel kids described, or would ours not fare so well? The available spots in Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Baltimore City College, Baltimore School for the Arts, and Western High School, for example, which are Blue Ribbon schools universally considered outstanding, are enough to ensure that kids in the upper quartiles of eligibility will land one. “The fact that you’re here, concerned about your child’s education,” he continued, “says your child stands a pretty good chance.” Eligibility (except in School for the Arts, which is exclusively audition based) is based on a composite score from tests and grades in middle school, and each school weights aspects of the score differently, depending on the thrust of the school (i.e., science or art driven). Choosing a school, moreover, is based on many nonacademic aspects, and you and your child will make the choice based on what’s right for you and your circumstances.
Also, Baltimore has a way to go, said one mom, to develop the same diversity of options for high school that we have for elementary. And that’s only going to happen, she said, if families stay in the city and demand it.
Our son was lucky enough to get into a great public school that goes through 8th grade. Unfortunately, it is across the city and can be a nightmare cutting across the city. We realize that there are others who travel much farther for school. As they get older, are there transportation options?
Carpooling is a popular way to address this very real issue, so that each family is only having to drive a couple times per week. Traffic snarls, I83—driving any distance within the city can be a huge hassle. Or, not so much, said one mom. She embraces this opportunity to chat with her 15-year-old daughter who is not very forthcoming about what’s going on in her life under less “captive” circumstances.
For the parents who are sending their children to a Baltimore City Public school—do you have any safety concerns? Do you feel like they are getting a quality education and on par with other children their age?
This was another one that parents downright rejected. One mom pointed out that there’s really nothing to the stereotype that suburban schools are good and city schools are bad. Another mom cited hard data, and, if anything, her daughter’s school outperforms those in the county. Why? One mom says it’s because city schools, frankly, have to try harder. The resident dad likewise picked apart the assumption that private is better than public. There followed several personal anecdotes about school experience, with the upshot that everyone is doing just fine. A mom then spoke up with some great advise to visit the school under consideration during a typical day to see what going there is really like. Do you like what’s happening there? Is it a good fit for your child? She finished with, “You know your kid better than anybody else. You’re the expert on your child. Some kids need more structure; some are really going to do better in an environment where they can explore. You know your kid.” Another mom chimed in to say make note of what you don’t like also, because no school is going to be perfect. Which imperfections can you live with?
The bottom line is, not an audience member could have walked away without being utterly reassured that raising a family in downtown Baltimore is not only fine, but that it confers lots of advantages over suburban life. The kids on the panel were bright, articulate, self-confident, and clearly happy. They spoke for themselves in more ways than one!