Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Shadow Time

Built from an old factory near Penn Station, the Baltimore Design School is a selective public school for young artists

It’s autumn in Baltimore. Leaves are falling, squirrels are making off with walnuts and acorns, and we are entering the Season of Shadowing.

I’m not referring to the blackness of early morning or the upcoming holiday of Halloween.  Shadowing is the process in which a prospective high-schooler spends a day following a slightly older student. It’s a look into another world.

Shadowing is on my mind, because my son’s looking around this fall. We have another student in the family: a daughter who’s set to graduate from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute next spring. “Poly" was established by the city in 1883 as a public high school specializing in math, science and engineering. It has a selective admissions process; something that is startling to many people in this country.

Here's how it works: a student’s standardized tests, and marks from grades six through the first quarter of eighth grade, are analyzed at the headquarters for the Baltimore Public Schools.  Based on these data, a cumulative number is created for the student. Those 13- and 14-year-olds with a certain number or higher are judged eligible to compete for admission to several rigorous high schools.

Baltimore Polytechnic Institute is now located in a 1950s building in North Baltimore

My daughter was fortunate enough to have a stack of excellent report cards by the age of thirteen. However, admission-based public education illustrates the difficulties for any young person with a learning difference or a less-than-perfect academic record. To its credit, the Baltimore Public Schools does have a conservatory-style School for the Arts, where a professional faculty decide admissions solely on talent displayed at auditions or with a portfolio.

A new Design School for middle through high school also admits based on portfolio work. The BCPS also provides access to several charter high schools and other high schools with a special focus (tourism work, health care, digital technology, the mechanical trades). This batch of schools offers places to students through a lottery, interviews and other processes. Those who don’t get in are assigned to general education high schools throughout the city.

Of course, there’s another option: independent schools. 

The Baltimore Friends School, established in 1784, has since built a new campus on N. Charles Street

Baltimore is one of the oldest cities on the Eastern Seaboard. By the 19th century, Baltimore’s port and railway connections made it the nation’s wealthiest city, following New York. Baltimore’s boom years, which lasted into the early 1960s, resulted in the establishment of dozens of private and parochial schools, many which are still thriving. Through energetic fundraising and endowments, these schools offer many merit and financial scholarships. Several have build student populations that are more ethnically mixed than the city’s public schools. Testing and prior grades are part of admissions at these schools, but teacher recommendations, athletic and artistic prowess, student essays, and shadow visits also come into play.

Just part of Gilman School's sprawling campus in Roland Park

Recently, my son shadowed at one of the private boys’ schools. He was nervous from the start. Getting ready that morning, he asked if I was sure that he was supposed to wear khaki trousers, a collared shirt with a tie, and non-athletic shoes. He worried about whether I should pack him a lunch—or if there really was going to be a free lunch in the cafeteria.

It was just a few miles to the sweeping campus set out on green lawns, but it felt like another world. In a neo-classical building, I handed over my miniature businessman to an even smaller boy wearing a blue blazer and bow tie.

At day’s end, my son described a happy experience. The two boys assigned to lead him through the school were friendly. He chose pasta for lunch in the cafeteria, marveled at the use of laptops in classrooms, and got the low-down on the baseball team from a friendly coach. And then there was the other part of school: class time. My son was surprised to find the Latin class so interesting.

No matter where you are, school is an emotional issue that taps into feelings of parental insecurity. The family who sends a child to one school—while most of the neighbors use another—might feel their decision sets them apart socially. Other parents take out huge mortgages on small homes in highly-rated suburban school districts. Nobody wants to feel that they did less for their children than they could have.

The Baltimore School for the Arts located in Mt. Vernon 

Because we’ve lived in two different states, our children have (so far) attended six schools, public and private. I don’t know if they remember most of their schooling. To me, it’s a blur of lunchboxes, PTA meetings, theme nights and teacher conferences. I find it difficult to reconcile my 17-year-old who loves forensics with the pink-and-purple fairy-winged princess of kindergarten, and my lanky, athletic 14-year-old with the chubby first grader who loved building with Legos.

But if I could write their report cards, all this would be there.


  1. Very interesting blog Sujata. We are simple folk here- everybody goes to the local (public) school unless you have very rich parents who can afford to send kids to a private school where they get the same education but much more confidence! In England private schools are called public schools just to confuse everybody. The wonder that is our education system took me from the streets of a 'ghetto' to a university in London without my parents paying a penny! Ok so I lived on cornflakes and chocolate but four years but that's what being a student is all about!

  2. I grew up as Caro, except it was Wheaties and no chocolate...I preferred jujyfruits...and in Pittsburgh. But that was waaaaaay long ago. Post War II US education. Today it's a totally different story, and when my children went to school the dynamics and choices were very different. Now it's my grandchildren...and I can't even begin to relate to what their parents face. I admire your perseverance. Good going, mommy.

  3. Hey. What boggles my mind (and I hope it came across) is that if you're not a high performer by age 13, you do not have access to a good education. And that makes me very sad for the whole city.

  4. Sujata, Oh does this sound familiar to me. My daughter and son-in-law went through that process three times last year with their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th children. Lillie, age 14, made it into to the top public school in NY. The boys, age 11, also qualified for a highly rated public middle school. This year their 17 year old will be applying to college. An effort I expect will be as complex as they other three put together. My son-in-law, a Canadian, keeps describing the system of school selection as "broken." It sure is anxiety producing for the parents and the kids. And the grandparents as well.

  5. My city is somewhat of a mess with public education and every child having access to a good education. Parents of children with special needs have to don combat gear to fight for their children's educational rights.

    I don't have to deal with this, but have read articles about children who push as hard as they can to do well and then because of a lottery are not accepted at decent high schools. It's heart-breaking.

    When I went to school in Chicago, and then New York, the public schools were fine. More could be done to improve the schools today if the political will and funds were made available.