A Community Thrives in Baltimore

Baltimore is a city with challenges. Trials of the police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 are currently ongoing. Both this year and last, in the week before Memorial Day and in an unsettling coincidence, the city recorded its 100th homicide of the year. One television station even reported the mark was reached on the same day, May 27th. To many outside of Baltimore all of this seems a little too much like the fictional Baltimore portrayed in the popular television show of a few seasons back, The Wire. Despite both the reality and perceptions of Baltimore, there is at least one place with a deep, thriving sense of community.

The concept of “community school” has been making a comeback. Community schools are “centers of the community and are open to everyone – all day, every day, evenings and weekends.” Today this is considered innovative. In the past, particularly in rural areas, the school was the center of the community. There are still some communities, where consolidation could not take hold, where it is still true.

I attended a community school…Morning Sun Community Schools, more precisely. Morning Sun, Iowa is a tiny rural community (population 836 in the 2010 census) in Southeast Iowa, only a few miles from the Mississippi River. Today, because of school consolidation that swallowed it up in the early 1990’s, it has only an elementary school. Nonetheless, that elementary school, with 145 students, is about the same size as the whole district at the time I graduated from high school. My graduating class was 24 students, which actually seemed pretty large to us at the time.

In my hometown the school was the center of community life. The school and its grounds hosted every aspect of social and cultural life in the town. It hosted scouting programs, the local Lions and Lionesses Clubs, summer Little League, Memorial Day and 4th of July celebrations, community dinners and dances, and the social event of the year: the Junior/Senior Prom. It was where we voted and received our vaccinations. It was the cultural center where band concerts, theatrical productions, and “donkey basketball” matches were staged. Okay, so maybe donkey basketball is not really a cultural event but the donkeys were pretty classy. It was the sports arena where we gathered to watch junior high and high school football, baseball, softball, basketball, and wrestling. Like today’s community schools, it was open every day of the week and it seemed like something was always happening there. Our school was the glue that held the Morning Sun community together.

In Baltimore there is another school, Wolfe Street Academy, which is doing something similar today to knit together its community within Baltimore. Wolfe Street Academy is a part of the Baltimore City Public Schools. The school’s focus on integrating academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement through community partnership causes it to stand out and bring hope to a city that too often struggles to find and hold hope. Wolfe Street Academy is a Pre-K through 5th grade school and historically has served the most recent immigrant populations. Today over 80% of its students speak a language other than English at home. Ninety-six percent of its students are from low-income households. As a community school, Wolfe Street Academy is a place which ensures students succeed academically, socially, and emotionally through a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources.

Wolfe Street Academy is a success story of deep community, collective impact, collaboration, and hope that needs to be told.

Fortunately, the people at Washington, DC’s public television station, WETA, thought so too. WETA has produced How a Community School Helps English Language Learners (ELLs) Succeed, a 13-minute feature on its ¡Colorín colorado! website about the Wolfe Street Academy.  ¡Colorín colorado! is a bilingual site for educators and families of English language learners.

In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit some bias about the work being done at Wolfe Street Academy. I have been there a couple of times in the past to help my spouse, Clemencia Vargas, with her students and I have been amazed and moved by what I have seen. Clemencia’s students, though, are the dental students from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry who provide oral health screening to Wolfe Street Academy. My role is typically to take pictures and otherwise stay out of the way. I see enough, though, to know this is a special place for many children and their families. It is truly a community school.

By the way, you will see Clemencia in a couple of fleeting scenes in the WETA video but you can see a longer interview with her about the dental screening program at Wolfe Street Academy and partnership with the UM School of Dentistry. When you view this video on the YouTube website you will see the interview continues with her in 11 segments total. In the additional segments she discusses the partnership with the school, the connection between good oral health and school success, and tells the story of one child whose life was changed as a result of the screening program.

The story of Wolfe Street Academy reminds us that community is defined by more than geography. Community is a place, a spirit, and a home where caring kindness wins out over rightness. May we all be so lucky to find such community in our lives and, then, welcome others into it.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day.

Tom Klaus

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