On Wednesday, January 28th, The New Century School once again had the pleasure of hosting the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance‘s annual signature event, “Meet the Big Kids (and Their Parents).” This event featured participants from neighborhoods all over the city (e.g., Fell’s Point, Butcher’s Hill, Otterbein, Roland Park, Federal Hill, etc.) to provide the inside scoop on the challenges and benefits of growing up and going to school in our urban environment. TNCS was perfectly situated to host again, with plans to open its very own middle school in the fall of 2016 and welcome some big kids of its own!
The event, designed to accommodate working parents, commenced with a happy hour with hors d’oeuvres from Harbor East’s Lebanese Taverna, while children were given pizza and snacks in an adjoining classroom with childcare by Wondersitters. The audience turnout was high—how to raise healthy, happy older children in downtown Baltimore is a popular topic! DBFA solicited questions for the panel in advance to make sure everyone’s concerns were addressed in a timely fashion. Said mediator Beth Laverick, “[This event] is 150% worth your time, and you will walk away with more information than you thought possible.”
This year, the event took a slightly different tack, focusing more on the kids themselves and letting them express their opinions in their own voices. One especially nice touch was in the variety of perspectives that the panel shared. In addition to middle school–age and high school–age kids, parents were also on hand to provide their viewpoints. Thirdly, the panel included two young working professionals who had grown up in Baltimore, gone to college, launched successful careers, and returned to Baltimore to live and work. The resounding message was that staying in Baltimore to raise a family is not only fine, but it has many advantages—big advantages—that the panel was happy to enumerate.
So how do they do it? How do downtown families manage “without yards, two-car garages, and shopping malls”?
DBFA Executive Director John Bullock introduced the event by explaining DBFA’s mission to keep Baltimore families connected and to provide the resources they need to enhance family life in Charm City. Mediator Mrs. Laverick then took over to introduce the panelists. Each was asked to describe where he or she lives and what it is about Baltimore that has him or her committed to city living. Walkability was a key theme as was the sense of community pervading the neighborhoods. Many consider Baltimore a “small, close-knit community within a big city.” In other words, you get the best of both worlds here. All of your neighbors know you and keep an eye out for your family as in a small town, while first-rate theatre, dining, farmers’ markets, and shopping are abundantly available—big-city perks. “There’s never a dull moment,” said Big Kid Sebastian Towles, which got a laugh from the audience. We could all agree with that statement!
Not surprisingly, schools were the biggest issue, just as they were last year. In some ways, this issue is fast becoming a non-issue. Almost soon as the Big Kids opened their mouths, audience members’ concerns about Baltimore City high schools were quelled. The panelists were smart, witty, eloquent, and extremely self-possessed. They were perfectly at ease speaking from the stage to a large audience, all of which says a lot about the education (a mix of public and private schools) they are receiving. “Do you have concerns that the education your child is getting is not on a par with national standards? parents were asked. “Not even a little bit,” said one, which was echoed unanimously. If anything, it’s the opposite. Fun fact: students graduating from Baltimore City public high schools get free tuition to Johns Hopkins University upon acceptance! (See below for a list of the top-performing Baltimore City high schools. Also note that Baltimore is nationally renowned for its private high schools (e.g., Gilman, Calvert Hall). “Where did you go to school?” when asked of a Baltimore native, does not refer to college, but to high school.
What about school safety? What about transportation to school? In Baltimore City, no high schools are zoned, so all are by choice. Prospective enrollees apply to their top picks and make the decision based on where they are accepted. This system is really wonderful for matching a Big Kid to the right learning environment (some schools focus on The Arts, others on STEM, for example). It also presents a couple of challenges, such as getting to a school that isn’t located in the immediate vicinity. Are parents forced to spend hours each morning chauffering their kids to school and making all manner of sacrifices for this inconvenience? Panelists laughed off the very idea. Part of urban living is developing the competence and independence to navigate the city. Most of the school-aged panelists take the MTA busses and are happy to do so. Carpools can also be arranged in certain instances, but to hear the kids themselves, availing themselves of the public transportation at hand clearly makes the most sense. Busses on the school routes are full of students, and it’s easy to develop “bus buddies” should a helping hand or just some companionship ever be needed.
As for safety in the school, this was again a moment during which the panelists impressed the audience. It’s true that cell phones and valuable items get stolen in Baltimore (as anywhere, city or no). These kids seemed almost puzzled by the idea that they wouldn’t use common sense en route to school or anywhere else. Don’t display valuable items; travel in groups. Duh ;)! As for larger safety issues such as bodily harm or worse, look at the statistics, said one of the grown-up “kids.” Violence in schools not only happens everywhere, but actually seems to be more prevalent in non-urban areas. This fact seems difficult to fathom until you consider that with a greater population density comes correspondingly more infrastructure to maintain order, such as police presence (and number of streetlights, pointed out Amuse Toys owner Claudia Towles, winning another audience laugh). The grown-up kids were quick to point out the harrowing experiences they met with after leaving Baltimore for college in small towns. The kids are right: It’s all down to using common sense, and urban parents might be more likely to begin instilling these lessons early, resulting in some pretty savvy young urban dwellers.
From this point, a unifying motif emerged during all topics. City kids are resourceful. They are creative, innovative, and welcoming of a challenge. No yard to play outside in? Text your buddies to meet up at the neighborhood park or initiate a ball game in a very-low-trafficked alley. “Learn your community like the back of your hand,” they advised. Walk around; get to know the city. Parents agreed. Grant independence in increments, said Fell’s Point mom Melanie Hood Wilson. Teach them their boundaries and to be mindful of their surroundings.
As happened throughout the night, what was presented in question form as something to be overcome turned out to be a clear advantage in panelist answers. For example, no backyard (or one made of bricks—another laugh) opens up the city as a playground with a wealth to do and explore. Mrs. Wilson shared an anecdote that when her teenage daughter had just finished a grueling morning of exams and had an afternoon available to do with whatever she chose, she and her friends opted for a visit to the art museum. And, Baltimore’s walkability and abundant public transportation means that our teenagers aren’t driving as much, which parents and grown-up kids say translate into fewer accidents and fewer DUIs compared to teens in the suburbs who tend to have to drive almost everywhere.
Although the view was overall pretty rosy, it isn’t perfect. But Baltimore families and stakeholders are working on establishing more high schools, especially charter schools, to increase the number of excellent options. The DaVinci Academy for the Arts and Sciences (working name) is in development in Southeast Baltimore, for example, with hopes to open in fall 2017. “Baltimore has a way to go,” said Mrs. Wilson, “to develop the same diversity of options for high school that we have for elementary. And that’s only going to happen if families stay in the city and demand it.” Another way you can make your voice heard on the topic of schools in Baltimore is by visiting the Baltimore City Public Schools website, which actively solicits feedback. This organization also conducts annual School Effectiveness Reviews (SERs) that are published on the site for your perusal.
- Baltimore Polytechnic Institute
- Baltimore City College
- Baltimore School for the Arts
- Western High School
- . . . Read more at GreatSchools.org!
Finally, if you would like a deeper dive into the most frequently asked questions and their answers, please see Immersed‘s write-up of 2014’s event, which dealt with many of the same topics: Meet The Big Kids.