Building an Education for Baltimore Girls

Building an Education for Baltimore Girls

On a snowy February morning, Roland Park Country School’s gymnasium buzzed with excitement as the entire school, along with all of the students and teachers from Lillie May Carroll Jackson School, a Baltimore City public charter school for girls in grades 5-8, came together for a joint morning of service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In small groups, nearly 900 girls participated in icebreaker activities and read books with social justice themes that their schools had collected from family donations to be gifted to local Head Start programs. After writing notes to the recipients, a choral ensemble with students from both schools performed a song before everyone joined in “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The day was special in large part because the girls were able to come together to honor the legacy of Dr. King’s passion for community, reading and helping others, and also because it reinforced the unique, close ties of the two Baltimore schools – the only relationship of its kind. RPCS was the first independent school in the nation to be approved to open a charter school nearly six years ago.

Named after local civil rights leader and activist who died in 1975, the idea for Lillie May Carroll Jackson School sparked in 2008 when former Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso tapped the independent school community for guidance and support to improve public education in the city. Together, with the Middle Grades Partnership, an organization that unites public and private schools in to create opportunities for Middle School students in Baltimore, and leaders of other Baltimore independent schools, the faculty at RPCS drew on their own experiences and best industry practices to create a charter for an educational model that could be effective in a public school setting. In June 2013, Roland Park Country School’s charter was approved and after a couple of years spent planning and hiring, Lillie May Carroll Jackson School opened its doors in 2015 with 80 students. Now in its fourth year of operation, there are 286 students enrolled from 23 zip codes, with a wait list every year.  

“At Lillie May, we say that there are no passengers, only crew,” said Laurel Freedman, executive director of the school, explaining how the girls meet in advisory groups twice a day to make sure nobody is on their own. “Every student here has an adult who cares for her.”

“I now have people I can talk to and know how to express myself,” said an 8th grader named Jamira, explaining the shift from her elementary school. “My attitude and the way I treat people has changed too.”

Jamira’s classmates echoed this sentiment when talking about their favorite parts of school: their revered teachers, the support system they can count on, the sense of sisterhood they experience in an all-girls environment, and their after school activities, including a mentoring program with students from Morgan State University and Towson University.

The all-girls model was a critical component of the initial charter. “The adage is true. If you change a girl’s life, you change a community,” said Carla Spawn-van Berkum, vice president of Lillie May Carroll Jackson School’s board of directors and assistant head of school for academics at Roland Park Country School, who co-wrote the charter. An all-girls culture erases any reinforcement of gendered stereotypes and allows students to build courage and confidence, understand that their voices matter and learn their potential from peers, teachers and mentors. And this potential is realized. When several students were asked recently what they want to be when they grow up, their answers ranged from being a pediatrician to working in real estate to owning a non-profit that helps the homeless. And when asked how they planned to land their dream jobs, their responses were unanimous: stay in school, remain focused, go to college and work hard.

At Lillie May Carroll Jackson School, there is an equal focus on academics and character development and the students and faculty embrace six “habits of mind,” which they all know well by heart and are displayed on a colorful sign on the front steps of school: active citizenship, inquiry, responsibility, perseverance, integrity, collaboration. These habits can be seen and felt throughout the school’s cheerful hallways. “Integrity is when your teacher’s back is to you, but you still do the right thing,” explained Kendall, a seventh grader.

For RPCS alumna Monica Butler Mitchell, 1998, the founding president of the board of Lillie May Carroll Jackson School, getting the school up and running was a very personal journey. “As a girl growing up in Baltimore, I was privileged to attend Roland Park Country School because of my mom’s hard work and support from others. The teachers and others on my path who believed in me and supported me shaped who I am today. Every girl deserves this kind of education, regardless of her economic circumstances.”

The students of Lillie May Carroll Jackson School and RPCS interact through meaningful programs at every grade level. After the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. morning of service, groups of girls from RPCS and Lillie May visited the YMCA to read some of the books they had collected to children. The Upper School peer mentors at RPCS work with girls in grades 5-8 at both schools to talk about topics like friendship, puberty and leadership. Lillie May Carroll Jackson students have visited the RPCS Lower School to read to the kindergartners for a “Big Sisters, Little Sisters” program and the school’s principal, Damia Thomas, came to speak to the 10th grade Leadership Seminar at RPCS about her career path. And every summer girls from both schools participate in a four week program called Growing Girls and Gardens. Run by the Middle Grades Partnership, students from  RPCS and Lillie May Carroll Jackson engage in reading, writing, math and science electives, tend gardens and go on field trips.

This summer, Lillie May Carroll Jackson School will move into a larger space in Clifton Park and will be able to accommodate up to 350 students. And their new building has a long-standing history of being a sanctuary for young women in Baltimore. From 1966-2010, The Paquin School helped pregnant and parenting adolescent mothers continue their studies, with many completing their high school education and some going on to college. Everyone at Lillie May will honor the legacy that came before them and carry it forward in the future. “We are so thrilled to provide girls with space and people who believe in them and give them the confidence and support they need,” said Mitchell.