Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

With a New Principal in the Office and a New Building on the Horizon, Fast-Improving Govans Elementary Moves into the Future

Imagine you’re a principal trying to get ready for the new school year. It’s a big challenge – a thousand different tasks to get done, a hundred things that could go wrong, and all of it resting on your shoulders. If you’re a first-time principal it’s even tougher, because on top of all those expectations, you will essentially be learning on the job.

Now consider this scenario:

Govans Principal Bernarda Kwaw, left, and Community School Coordinator Sandi McFadden

It’s a new school year, you’re a first-time principal, and your school is closing at the end of the year, reopening in a temporary space next school year, and relocating yet again 12 to 18 months after that, in a brand-new building. That’s the exact situation facing Principal Bernarda Kwaw at Govans Elementary School, a Baltimore Curriculum Project neighborhood charter school. Although Principal Kwaw was “feeling excited and anxious” a few days before the start of the school year, in a recent interview she seemed remarkably calm. “My husband reminded me that I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” said Principal Kwaw, who taught at Collington Square Elementary/Middle School in East Baltimore for two decades and was assistant principal at Govans for the last three years.

Govans is one of more than two dozen schools being renovated or replaced under the 21st Century School Buildings Plan, an unprecedented $1 billion commitment to upgrade city schools, which are the oldest and most deteriorated in Maryland. Strong City Baltimore was an influential force in securing this funding, through its work with the Baltimore Education Coalition, the leading advocacy group for the city’s public school families. Strong City is a founder, organizer, and fiscal sponsor of the Coalition, and Strong City staff have held leadership positions in the organization.

Strong City’s Community School Coordinator for Govans Elementary is Sandi McFadden, herself a resident of the Mid-Govans community the school serves. Ms. Sandi worked closely with former Govans Principal Linda Taylor, and now with Principal Kwaw, to increase family engagement, build partnerships, and assess the needs of the school community. (The school has particularly strong relationships with local churches, including Church of the Redeemer, Huber Memorial, and Front Porch.) Such community-based work is even more important now, given the dramatic transition the school is going through.

Govans experienced improvement under former Principal Taylor, who arrived when the school was in danger of being taken over by the state and led Govans for 12 years after serving as assistant principal at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School under Dr. Mariale Hardiman. Former Principal Taylor focused on increasing parent involvement, cultivating partnerships, and raising attendance rates and test scores. Three years ago, Govans became a charter school as part of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which introduced progressive concepts such as the use of restorative practices to solve conflicts, the Direct Instruction reading program, and tailoring professional development sessions to fit the school’s specific needs. In 2016, Sandi McFadden became the community school liaison, as Govans embarked on the process of becoming a community school with the support of the Family League of Baltimore, the Goldseker Foundation, and Strong City. “We’re seen as being a pretty good school, but we want to be a great school,” former Principal Taylor said.

Its many efforts to improve are starting to pay off for Govans. The recently released PARCC scores showed that students in grades three to five scored 13.4 percentage points higher in English/Language Arts this year compared with 2016; fourth-grade scores increased by 31.3 points. In math, those same students had a 5 percentage point increase, with fourth-graders’ scores rising 15.5 points. Higher levels of performance, combined with its innovative charter model and anticipation about the new building, add up to a big boost for Govans – and people are taking notice. As a neighborhood charter, Govans is obligated to accept in-zone children first, but parents from other areas of the city also want to send their kids there. Officials see Govans as a school that will grow; current enrollment is just over 400 students, but the new building will have room for 600.

Principal Kwaw explained: “Part of the draw is, people recognize that with a charter, you are allowed some different opportunities. One of the biggest plusses here is that every student works at their performance level, not grade level. If they’re below grade level, we start where they are but bring them up to current grade level. And those performing above have the opportunity for rigorous instruction that challenges them.” She also noted that the funding flexibility that comes with charter status allows the school to make decisions such as hiring a part- or full-time teaching assistant for the pre-K through grade 2 classes.

For parent Alex Jefferson III, Govans is worth the long drive across town every morning from West Hills in Southwest Baltimore, where he lives with his wife and son (also named Alex), who is starting second grade this year. Young Alex has a speech delay and is on the autism spectrum, and Mr. Jefferson is happy with the instruction his son has been receiving for the past two years at Govans from the specialists who work with him there. He is also pleased that the school has Sandi McFadden as community school coordinator, describing her as “a most valuable resource at the school.” Principal Kwaw agreed with that assessment, noting, “When I say, ‘Ms. Sandi, I need something,’ she delivers. The children know her, the families know her. She’s been helpful with rallying our parents, who’ve been a lot more active than they had been in past.”

Mr. Jefferson, who is chairman of the Govans PTO’s Parent Advisory Board, is excited about the school’s potential for further progress with the new building, saying, “That’s a no-brainer. The school is not bad, but it could be better. I’m eagerly anticipating the transition, because with a brand new school – you couple that with fact that we have great people, and the sky’s the limit for what the possibilities are.”

The new Govans Elementary School building is expected to open for students sometime during the 2020-2021 academic year. When it does, it will be able to better fulfill its role as a true community school, according to Ms. Sandi. As she explained, “With this building having 3,000 square feet of community space built in as part of the community school concept, it allows the school to become a hub of activity for the entire neighborhood.” This will allow Ms. Sandi to expand on activities she already organizes at the school, such as connecting kids with mentors, planning activities in the second floor Parent Room, or working with the newly formed Parent Advisory Board as they relentlessly – and successfully – appealed to Baltimore City Schools to improve the playground surface, making it a safer space

for the children. A Community Needs Assessment in 2017 that surveyed students, parents, school staff, and community members found that people wanted the new building to include a wellness center, a multipurpose room where large meetings could be held, office space for community organizers, and a food pantry.

In addition to its many amenities serving the community, the new school will also be a much more appealing environment for learning, according to Principal Kwaw. She is especially excited about having reliable climate control, so children are neither too hot during warm months nor too cold in the winter – “It’s not conducive for learning, and it’s not even healthy,” she says of the current situation at the school. Another big advantage of the new school will be in the realm of technology; each classroom will have an Internet-enabled smartboard, allowing teachers to incorporate tech to a much greater degree. There will be a new gymnasium, a dual-purpose “cafetorium,” and, not least, fountains with water that is safe to drink.

With the opening of the new school already having been pushed back, and with plans underway to house Govans students at nearby Baltimore IT Academy starting next academic year, Principal Kwaw says that having good communication will be essential. “The biggest concern is maintaining student population,” she says. “Often, when parents are faced with these kinds of changes, their instinct is to flee. I am hoping that by keeping the lines of communication open, constantly sharing information with parents, that will ease the anxiousness.”

Principal Kwaw and Ms. Sandi said priorities for the year at Govans include activities aimed at boosting awareness and enrollment through monthly open houses and outreach to parents of babies and toddlers about the school’s full-day preschool. They also plan to raise funds this year to increase the number of classroom laptops available to students, many of whom do not have computers at home.

What would Principal Kwaw like to see happening at the school five years from now? “Long range, would like to see a more diverse student population” that better represents the target zone on the northern and western areas near the school, she says. The school’s demographics are 95 percent African-American, with a handful of Hispanic and white families – including some children of staff members, which Principal Kwaw says “speaks well of your school.”

Strong City’s involvement at the Govans School is part of a long and deep history of involvement in the York Road Corridor. Strong City helped organize and continues to fiscally sponsor the York Road Partnership, a collaborative effort that seeks to bridge the divide between the mostly white, wealthier neighborhoods west of York and the mostly African-American, lower-income communities to the east. For several years, Strong City has employed a community organizer in the York Road Corridor, Christian Hall, whose position is funded in part by a group of Baltimore-area Presbyterian churches. Strong City also fiscally sponsors the nearby Wilson Park Community Association, Wilson Park Northern, and the Winston-Govans Neighborhood Improvement Association.

Karen DeCamp, Senior Portfolio Manager and Director of Community Programs for Strong City, is a former president of the York Road Partnership. She notes that “Strong public schools are game-changers for York Road neighborhoods. This is an exciting time for those of us who have advocated for new school buildings and worked to bring together families, community and partners all united around a successful school.”


Making her Mark: Community artist Tamara Payne helps lead Harwood’s revival

By Mike Cross-Barnet

Tamara Payne says that before 2007, “I didn’t even know there was a ‘Harwood.’” That seems amazing now, considering the strong influence her artistry has had on this rapidly reviving neighborhood. Attractive mosaic house number signs on many blocks. Colorful flower baskets on Lorraine Avenue. The beautiful glass-and-ceramic mural at the entrance to Barclay Elementary/Middle School. Workshops at the 29th Street Community Center. And, most recently, a butterfly-themed community art project on the sides of houses at the corner of Lorraine and Barclay.

Tamara’s creative fingerprints are all over the neighborhood, from the Harwood sign on 25th Street, to the mosaic welcoming people to the Community Center. And yet, she didn’t begin with the intention of being a “community artist.” Instead, she started modestly by adding beautifying touches to her own rowhouse on Lorraine. Neighbors who admired her mosaic number sign started commissioning her to create signs for their houses, too.

“I put a mosaic sign up on my house and my neighbors said, ‘Hey, where’d you get that from?” Tamara explains. “It was a domino effect – neighbors started commissioning me for mosaics, year to year to year … and it grew until the whole block was done.”

For Tamara Payne, art and community activism are inseparable. When she moved to Harwood, she had “a little trepidation on my spirit” when she saw drug dealers on the corner and trash blowing around the street. She decided to lead by example: picking up trash, sweeping in front of her house, doing small things to fix up her house. She began a tradition of placing flower baskets in front of each home on her block, twice a year (more than half of the block was vacant when she started).

It was a difficult, transitional time for her. Three months after moving to the house on Lorraine, her father died, and she took a leave of absence from her position as a full-time arts educator with the Baltimore City Public Schools. During those 3 ½ months at home, she decided to quit that job in order to make and sell her art full time.

When Tamara found out that Strong City Baltimore was working with Harwood residents who wanted to strengthen their community, her life and artistic career took a turn. She joined forces with Strong City VISTA members who were doing block projects in the neighborhood, winning a grant from Healthy Neighborhoods (a Strong City partner organization) to do a mosaic number sign block project. VISTAs organized neighbors to buy into the idea.

Tamara began holding workshops for both adults and kids, and as her identity as a community artist grew, so did her connection to Strong City. She noticed that the local neighborhood association’s meetings were negatively focused and poorly attended, so she joined the association and opened her home for meetings. Strong City often had a presence at those meetings, including VISTAs and Community Revitalization Manager Peter Duvall, who was exploring ways to tackle the problem of vacant houses. The art projects and workshops had become a way of restoring a sense of pride to Harwood, spilling over into other efforts to care for the community.

“Now we were congregating,” Tamara recalls of those meetings at her home. “Neighbors who wouldn’t ordinarily come together are breaking bread for a greater cause – everyone’s putting in a small piece and owning it. … Relationship building is what it turned into.”

Good things were now happening in Harwood, including at the Barclay Elementary/Middle School, where Strong City’s involvement was nurturing partnerships and building engagement. Meanwhile, thanks to Tamara – and those she inspired – Harwood was starting to look and feel more welcoming through a combination of greening and artistic projects. Youngsters were earning service learning credits for helping with those projects, which they sometimes designed themselves. In 2009, a colorful sign welcoming people to the community was installed at the corner of Greenmount Avenue and 25th Street.

Starting in 2004, Tamara went on a number of trips with her church, Empowerment Temple, doing mission work in South Africa, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. This trips, some with other educators and Baltimore City school students, focused on beautification projects as well as nutrition and health issues. After moving to Harwood and leaving her City Schools job, Tamara felt inspired by a new calling. Looking around her neighborhood, she said to herself, “This is my mission now. We need help right here.” She went back to school to finish her graduate degree at MICA, now fully embracing her new identity as a community-based artist.

Needing more space, Tamara began holding workshops at the city-run Barclay Recreation Center (which a few years later would become Strong City’s 29th Street Community Center). For her thesis work at MICA, she teamed up with Strong City and the Barclay school to create the distinctive ceramic mural — featuring images representing the area’s history — that adorns the school at Barclay and 29th streets.

Through many changes over the years, she says, one thing that has remained consistent is the support she has gotten from Strong City – from help with block projects, to space to do her workshops, to fiscal sponsorship of the community association, to help with grant writing. “It’s almost as if my relationship with Strong City changed the direction of my whole life,” Tamara says.

After the 2015 Uprising, Tamara says, she wanted to do a new community project and was thinking about the “butterfly effect” – the idea that even the smallest changes can have powerful, unforeseen consequences. Also, butterflies represent growth and transformation, and “I wanted something that would be a representation of Harwood transitioning,” she says.

On May 12, 2018, Tamara unveiled the “Butterfly Effect,” a collaboration between herself and fellow Harwood resident Ryan Parnell, a contractor — fusing her glass mosaic art with his carpentry skills. The project was made possible by two Spruce-Up Grants from Central Baltimore Partnership. The mosaics are displayed on the sides of several homes in the neighborhood.

Harwood today is a far cry from when Tamara moved here back in 2007, just two years after drug dealers firebombed the home of then-community association President Edna McAbier – a low point for the neighborhood after decades of slow decline. Whole blocks were abandoned, trash was a major problem, and beauty was hard to find. These days, Tamara says, people have a sense of ownership. They take care of their property – she’s not the only one out sweeping and picking up trash.

“When I moved here, half my block was vacant and all of Whitridge was vacant,” she recalls. “Now, the last three community association presidents have lived on Whitridge, and there are no vacants on my block.”

And – no surprise – many of those refurbished houses have Tamara Payne mosaics out front.


Summer brings longer days, more kids, nonstop activity at The Club

Vanessa Williams can spare a moment – but just a moment – to let you know how things are going at The Club at Collington Square, the Strong City-run youth development program in East Baltimore where she serves as director.

You can forgive her for feeling a bit harried. During the school year, things are busy enough for her, with about 92 students (The Club calls them “scholars”) attending enriching after-school weekdays from 3 to 6:30 p.m. But from June 25th to August 12th, the program day expands to about 142 scholars and a day that lasts from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Somehow, Ms. Vanessa gets it all done with her regular year-round staff (mostly young men and women from the local community), plus a couple of additional summer employees and a group of teens from the Baltimore City YouthWorks program.

To address the problem of “summer slide,” Club scholars participate in academics every day, but also a wide range of activities including arts and crafts, drumming, dance, free verse, karate, team sports, fitness, nutrition and cooking. There’s a weekly swim excursion and other trips planned, including one to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

This year, The Club has seen a significant increase in middle school students in the summer program, and has responded with a more developed program for them focusing on community service, mentoring younger kids, and looking ahead to high school and college (including visits to the Coppin State and Morgan State campuses).

“The joy of it is really seeing them come in the morning with smiles on their faces and wanting to be here,” Ms. Vanessa says. “The challenge is making it work when we don’t have a lot of space. We had to turn away some people as well – that always breaks

my heart, saying no. We could easily have 200 kids in here, based on the demand.”

Also challenging is the fact that many of the scholars face issues related to poverty and problems in their home lives. So, in addition to all the difficulties of running a summer camp in a cramped space, staff have to be “present to their needs,” Ms. Vanessa says. “I had a little fourth-grader here, he was in tears and rightfully so, because of some issues going on in his home,” she recalls. “The challenge is, with this many kids, to know who needs what and when they need it.”

The Club, which Strong City took over from Episcopal Community Services of Maryland last year, is facing a budget shortfall. You can help by making a donation here.


School’s out — but not for Guilford Community School Coordinator Annie Weber

What does a community school coordinator do when school’s out for the summer? Plenty. Just ask Annie Weber, CSC at Guilford Elementary/Middle School and one of the newest Strong City staff members.

Annie began her job on June 4, and she’s been learning that although the school year is now over, a community school coordinator’s work never is. CSCs function as a school’s connective tissue: helping families locate resources ranging from food assistance to social services; nurturing school/community partnerships; and promoting parent engagement with the school. Many of those things continue to happen right through the summer months.

On a recent day, for example, Annie went to a coordinating meeting for the York Road Partnership, community associations, and the Loyola Center for Community Service and Justice. Then she worked on recruiting students for the BELL Summer Learning program. She was also working on end-

of-year reporting for the Family League of Baltimore (which helps fund her position), as well as getting ready for a school-supply drive.

“I’ve been going to a lot of meetings,” Annie says, ticking off some of them: Family League, 21st Century Schools Program, Bmore for Healthy Babies. “I do a little bit of everything.”

A Baltimore County native, Annie has landed back in the Baltimore area after an adventurous several years, including three separate stays in Uganda: as a junior at Gettysburg College studying post-conflict transformation; the summer after graduation after winning grants to run a girls’ health program; and before starting graduate school in social work at the University of Maryland, on a fellowship with the nonprofit Bicycles Against Poverty.

Annie was a social work intern at Guilford this past year, working with former Community School Coordinator Lauren Linn, which she says “definitely helped my transition” to taking over the position. She focused on “macro” social work at UM – program development, management, policy advocacy – and enjoys the community schools job because it combines administrative responsibilities and hands-on work with families.

One special issue at Guilford is that the school is slated to close. Starting in 2021, students from Guilford and Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle are scheduled to begin attending a newly built school under the 21st Century Schools program (a $1 billion school construction plan for Baltimore City that Strong City was heavily involved in advocating for through the Baltimore Education Coalition). The closing plan is leading enrollment at Guilford to drop, and making family engagement more challenging.

When she does have a little down time, Annie works on getting her room together and thinking about one of the biggest tasks awaiting her: Guilford’s biannual community needs assessment, which will translate into an action plan featuring six goals that will guide her work for the upcoming academic year.

“I’m trying to get organized, because I know I won’t have time during the school year,” she says with a smile.


“Surrounded by peace” — a summer camp focused on building a conflict-free world

Young campers exchange a “Peace Camp handshake.”

It’s Monday morning on a warm July day, and the A/C is out of commission. You might expect a group of several dozen kids – ages 6 to 13 – gathered upstairs at the 29th Street Community Center to be a bit cranky or restless, possibly both. Yet, as they are called to gather in a circle along with a half-dozen adults at 9:30 a.m., the mood in the room is a mixture of controlled excitement and something approaching serenity.

“OK, I want you to get into groups of three with someone wearing the same color as you!” calls out the energetic woman in charge of this gathering. “Now, talk in your groups about one fun thing you did this weekend.” A few minutes later, she calls the group back to attention: “Who would like to show us and your partner your Peace Camp handshake?”

Welcome to Peace Camp, the main program of By Peaceful Means, a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City Baltimore founded by longtime community activist Ralph Moore and directed by Nawal Rajeh, who was guiding the group of campers in the meeting circle – a ritual that kicks off summer camp for each day of the three-week session. After the gathering circle, campers head off to outdoor play, literacy-oriented projects such as journaling, or other activities.

Each morning begins with a gathering circle.

Peaceful problem solving and conflict resolution are at the heart of Peace Camp’s approach to youth development, and each week a new “peace hero” is celebrated. Past heroes have included Nelson Mandela, Myanmar’s Ang San Suu Kyi, and Tererai Trent (the Zimbabwean woman whose life story was featured in the book Half the Sky). This week, instead of a single peace hero, they are focusing on the activists of the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition to learning about peace heroes, campers are encouraged to speak up and advocate for themselves on issues ranging from school funding to keeping city pools open.

“The idea is that peace is integrated into everything we do – it’s not some separate thing we learn about,” says Rajeh, a community organizer and former teacher who brought the Peace Camp concept to Baltimore over a decade ago after taking part in a similar camp in Pennsylvania.

A centerpiece of Peace Camp is what Moore and Rajeh call “Peace Studios,” mixed-age groupings two days a week where the youngsters are empowered to choose from a variety of activities ranging from computer coding to cooking to photography to “telling your story” through poetry, video, or other media. “They are learning all sorts of skills that lend themselves to a more peaceful world,” Rajeh says.

Taleah Edwards, 16, who uses the name Aeon, started as a camper back in 2015 and has been coming

Aeon, 16, began as a camper and is now a YouthWorks junior counselor.

back to Peace Camp as a junior counselor Youth Worker every year since; this year she is teaching yoga. Aeon, a Barclay Elementary/Middle School graduate and rising junior at Baltimore City College High School, says what makes Peace Camp a special place is that “We try to teach the kids to be proud of who they are, and that things can be solved in a better way [than fighting].”

That message seems to be getting across for campers like Zacharia Grovogui, who at age 8 has already been attending Peace Camp for several years. He says he likes the camp because he can choose which studio activity to do – his favorite is coding. Also, he says, “We learn about famous people. We learned about Tererai Trent, who buried her dreams, and they came true. She visualized it, and my mom always tells me to visualize things.” Jerni Dajer, 6, enjoys the mindfulness exercises, explaining, “You need to close your eyes and keep your brain wide awake.” Her favorite things about camp? “I love to eat, and I love to play outside!”

Longtime community activist Ralph Moore is a founder of By Peaceful Means.

Ralph Moore recalls that when Peace Camp first came to the Community Center – shortly after the building was reopened under Strong City Baltimore’s operation – some of the campers, from the Barclay School next door, were known for not getting along with each other. Within days, the tensions between those kids had vanished.

“This camp is needed more than ever,” says Moore, a Baltimore native who grew up in Sandtown-Winchester and ran the community center at St. Frances Academy, where Peace Camp began in 2006 and where a second three-week camp session will be held later this summer. “Everything is telling kids to fight: video games, movies, TV. Somewhere, something has to tell them it’s OK to use words instead of fists, it’s OK to be peacemakers in your homes, churches, neighborhoods, communities.”

The connection with Strong City began in 2012, when By Peaceful Means needed a new fiscal sponsor, and Moore naturally turned to the organization he knew had done good community-based work for decades. “I’d known of Greater Homewood for about 40 years,” Moore recalls, using Strong City’s former name. (Moore received Strong City’s Volunteer of the Year award in 2017, recognizing his lifetime of service in many capacities.)

Leaving the circle and heading off for morning activities.

On Monday of the last week of camp, as students and teachers gather in the circle, they talk about what’s ahead for the week – closing ceremony on Wednesday, family meal on Thursday, field trip to go swimming on Friday. Before the group disperses to their classrooms, Rajeh asks everyone to “think of one positive thought for your day” and then asks them to “Freeze!” – a mindfulness exercise in which the kids spend about 30 seconds in quiet reflection and meditation. They then conclude with a call-and-response that summarize the Peace Camp philosophy:

“I am covered in peace. Surrounded by peace. Peace protects me. Peace supports me. Peace is in me. Peace to all human beings.”