Prior to start of the current school year, the Henderson-Hopkins school in East Baltimore was a frustrating contradiction.
The kindergarten through eighth grade school on Ashland Avenue, the first new school built in that part of the city in more than 20 years when it opened in January 2014, is an architectural gem that stands in contrast to many other city schools.
However, what was happening inside the school didn't match the smartly functional physical appearance; test scores at some grade levels were especially disappointing and even enrollment was declining.
Peter Kannam -- who took over as the school's new principal last summer and was charged with reversing the school's direction -- felt his first order of business was not inside that new building. Rather, it was on the streets surrounding his new school.
"We started by knocking on doors starting in August," Kannam said. "We knocked on 685 doors with my staff. We wanted to know, 'What did people want from their school that they weren't getting?' And we listened. What they told us was that they wanted more after-school activities."
Photo Credit: John D. Merrill
For boys, the first choice was a flag football team. For girls, a step team topped the wish list.
Henderson-Hopkins is what is known as a "contract school" of the Baltimore City Public Schools System. The Johns Hopkins University School of Education operates the school in partnership with Morgan State University.
It's also had a spotlight on it as a centerpiece for the East Baltimore neighborhood near Johns Hopkins Hospital that has been targeted for a sweeping urban transformation -- but that renewal has been stalled for years.
However, there are signs that the promise of that renewal is beginning to take shape with the expectation that boarded-up buildings will be replaced with new housing.
"As with any school starting from scratch there have been challenges in realizing the school's vision of excellence," Kannam said. "Now, it's a new day at Henderson-Hopkins."
And the key to making students and parents believe a new day had arrived was a burst of new after-school activities. Added to what had been a fairly thin roster of after-school activities were the flag football team, the step DREAM team, a boys' running club, soccer training, a singing club, a theater club, a debate team, an emerging scholars program and a dance group.
The number of after-school clubs swelled from six to 15. More importantly, the added activities increased slots for kids in those clubs from 120 to 393 in a school with an enrollment of 548.
"You have to unlock what kids love," Kannam said.
And the children who are taking advantage are happy about the change.
Photo Credit: Danielle Washington
"This is much better," said Trina Holt, an eighth-grader who is the captain of the step DREAM team. "There wasn't very much at all before. In step, you learn about being on a team and working together and what it takes to compete. We just went to our first competition at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. When we finished, we got a standing ovation."
The Henderson-Hopkins flag football team, which plays on the school's expansive athletic field right on campus complete with overhead lighting, finished the regular season 6-0 and advanced to the semifinals of its league playoffs.
Savion Witherspoon, a seventh-grader, quarterbacked the team and said the camaraderie on the football field extended off the field as well.
"You get to know other kids on your team and they become friends," Savion said.
Kamron Hall, an eighth-grader who played center, and Joshua Merritt, a seventh-grader who played several positions, made the point that being on a team was a motivator for students to hit the books.
"If you don't keep up with your studies and get good grades, you're not going to play," said Merritt, who made the honor roll.
Hall said playing flag football has encouraged him to keep working on various aspects of his game during the offseason.
Danielle Washington, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English and coaches the step DREAM team, said the larger menu of after-school activities has the added benefit of keeping more kids safe, something that's not always easy to do in Baltimore where street violence is all too common.
Henderson-Hopkins offers dinner in its cafeteria just about the time the after-school activities are ending.
"Students are still here at 5:00-5:30 p.m., and then they get a chance to get dinner and get home about 6 p.m., where they do their homework," Washington said. "Then they go to sleep and then they get up and do it all over again. So it takes away from that opportunity where they're out in Baltimore City roaming the streets."
Washington said it's important to give students as much of a well-rounded school experience as possible and by linking the activities with academics, children learn important life lessons.
For instance, to perform with the competition component of the step team, students are required to maintain an 85 percent grade average. Prior to a recent competition event, one of Washington's better team members slipped a bit below that mark and was ineligible to compete.
"I really wanted her to go because she's really good but at the same time, the girls need to know we're serious," Washington said. "Since then, [the student] has been going to all her teachers asking about her grades so that she knows even before report cards come out that she's going to meet the 85 percent."
Kannam has set the goals high for his school and its students and is a strong believer that creating a full, rich school experience is the key to academic excellence.
"We're going to make this the best school in Baltimore that any parent would want to send their kid to," he said. "I'm four months into this and I'm not looking behind. I'm looking forward."
Photo Credit: Sheri Hairston
Issue 250: December 2018 / January 2019