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:
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.”