Making the Grade

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Emily got a “C” on a Spanish quiz this week. Irrationally, my thoughts immediately turned to her future. Not whether she would ever master the language, or even whether she would enjoy travel to Spanish-speaking destinations as much as if she were fluent. My first thought was how it would affect her college admissions. Emily is a junior. Understand that she has not received a “C” for the semester, or the year. She has not even gotten a “C” on a unit test. It was just a quiz. We are all wound so tightly about where our kids are going to college, and I am no exception. I immediately went there.

I feel like I owe Emily an apology. Not because I said what I was thinking (something along the lines of “You’re never going to Williams with a C in Spanish!”  or “There go your dreams!”), although she might have read some iteration of that message on my screwed-up face.  I owe her an apology because I thought those stupid thoughts, and for a moment was swept away by the mass hysteria that plagues our demographic—this narrow slice of society whose kids are smart, affluent, and afforded every opportunity. Why do we do this to them?

Our kids are intelligent, healthy, and talented. We are so lucky to have them, and to live in a time and place where we can offer them their dreams. How do we balance our hopes for their future against the real risk of making them feel like there is no such thing as good enough?  I saw the answer in my friend’s toddler the other day. She was fighting to get the peanut butter jar back from her mother, exasperated, saying “I’ll DO it, Mommy!” Well said.

Robert E. Lee Park: Moving To the County From the City

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For  residents and neighbors in the Ruxton/Riderwood area,  reopening of the Robert E. Lee Park, 454 acres of beautiful wooded land with Lake Roland as it’s heart, is a long-awaited event. The park has been officially closed since fall of 2009, to allow work on the main bridge that crosses the dam. But behind the scenes, a lot of people have been working hard to restore Robert E. Lee Park (one of the largest parks in Baltimore County) to its former glory and rightful place among the most beautiful open spaces in the area.

Interestingly, the most significant aspect of the park reopening will take place only on paper.  In 2009, Baltimore County took over management of the park from Baltimore City in a  no-cost  50 year lease,  automatically renewable for another 50 years.  Similar successful arrangements already exist, including a lease between Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County for Fort Smallwood Park, and between Baltimore City and Baltimore County for Cromwell Bridge Park. 

Beahta Davis is the area coordinator of nature and recreation resources for the Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Department.  She explained the county’s reasons for the takeover of the Robert E. Lee Park and the much needed improvements. “We saw it as a hidden gem that was underutilized” she said in an interview with the Baltimore Daily Record last fall. Our “mission is to revitalize what exists and to add to it in terms of recreational activities”.

A bit of history

While the Robert E. Lee Park is located entirely within Baltimore County, it was until recently owned and operated by the City of Baltimore.  Originally constructed in 1861 by damming  the Jones Falls, the park served as a water source  not only for city residents, but for Baltimore, Harford and Anne Arundel county residents for 53 years, until it was determined that the water quantity was insufficient. Since 1914, the park has been used as a recreational facility managed by Baltimore City. By the 1990’s City budgets were simply too stretched to pay for proper oversight and maintenance, and in recent years, the property was allowed to deteriorate to the point where people were found actually living in the park. In addition, soil samples revealed dangerously toxic levels  of e-coli bacteria due to dog feces. 

New funding

As a result of the takeover by Baltimore County,  $6.1 million in state and county funding was obtained for improvements  determined to be necessary for the safety and preservation of the park. These improvements include rebuilding of the bridge, improving parking and Light Rail access to the park, restoration of walking and biking trails, and shoring up the banks of the reservoir, which had severely eroded. In addition, a one-acre, enclosed, off-leash dog walking facility is planned. Security will be provided by Baltimore County police.  While the $6.1 million will cover the cost of all of the initial improvements, is hoped that  voluntary contributions by residents and neighbors, as well as monthly event programming, will help to offset costs of park maintenance and stewardship.

In October of 2010, members of the already existing Riderwood/Ruxton/ Lake Roland Area Improvement Association and other volunteers formed the Robert E. Lee Park Nature Center (RELPNC), and began monthly meetings  under the leadership of Peter Maloney, President. A Community Plan for the park was officially adopted by the Baltimore County Council,  reinforcing the commitment on both sides to working closely together to run the park. Volunteers at the Nature Council will work closely with the Baltimore County Recreation and Parks on improving and maintaining key areas of the park, and will begin a membership drive in Fall 2011 through Spring 2012.

Jeff  Budnitz, Treasurer of the Nature Council, and an early supporter of the Robert E. Lee Park revitalization efforts, credits the hard work of many individuals for the success of the park take over, including Baltimore County councilman (now County Executive) Kevin Kamentetz, for his  “tremendous advocacy of the park, including the establishment of new RC7 zoning” to prevent the selling of park land for development. “The county put together the budget” says Budnitz, “and everything that was committed to is being done. A long term Master Plan is being developed, to be accomplished in multiple phases. We are completing phase I now, and there will have to be public input going forward”.  

What’s on the table? Very likely, a multiple-use facility with easy access from the Baltimore Light Rail, that will include boating, biking, trail-walking, educational programming, a child’s play area and dog walking. Robert E. Lee is a “passive” park, which typically means no lighted athletic fields, no swimming pool, and no tennis courts, among other things. While the definition of “passive park” often includes no dog walking, there are plans to include an enclosed off-leash dog walking area at Robert E. Lee, possibly open only to members, for a nominal annual fee. Eventually, playing fields may be added. Overall, the park improvements promise a big leap forward in quality of life in the Baltimore area.

Local reactions? Surprisingly positive 

We questioned local residents and park neighbors about the changes, and got a uniformly enthusiastic response – even on the  potentially touchy issue of voluntary private funding to supplement the  initial Baltimore County investment. 

 “If you care about your community, you need to be willing to get behind it” says Chris Feiss. “I can see bald eagles flying over the lake from my backyard, and that’s got to be worth something to me”. Cheryl Finney, another park neighbor, agrees.  Although the park has generally been a good neighbor, Finney cites occasional problems in past years of trash and off-leashed dogs making the northwestern peninsula occasionally unpleasant. “I am a believer in private involvement and ownership of issues relating to community” Finney states. Asked how much she would be willing to contribute, she says “I’m not sure, but I’m willing to listen.  I’d love to see the public use the park more, and it definitely deserves stewardship”.

The specific financial goals of the Nature Council are still being determined. Jeff Budnitz points out,  “You have to have a pretty solid plan before you ask for the money. We are almost there”. According to Beahta Davis, “the Nature Council is in the driver’s seat with this,” referring to both the fundraising and planning for park programming and maintenance . The hope, everyone agrees, is to eventually be largely self-sufficient.

The  official reopening of Robert E. Lee Park is tentatively scheduled for September, 2011. Stay tuned for further updates and opening day activities.

 

Radcliffe Jewelers is Our Launch Sponsor

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Thanks to Radcliffe Jewelers for being the launch sponsor of Baltimore Fishbowl.  We couldn’t make the site work without advertisers. (I can practically hear all the old media types groaning.) We are grateful to Radcliffe for being willing to be part of the adventure. We’ll be trying out some new ideas with Radcliffe, like videos and sponsored posts, so stay tuned.  

Baltimore Onstage in Black and White

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“Baltimore in Black and White,” now playing at the cell theatre in New York, was inspired by playwright Jason Odell Williams’ experience of being a kid in Columbia, MD, having an extremely diverse group of friends and growing up making [good-natured] fun of one another. When he got to high school at McDonough, he says “everything was segregated – people were sitting at different tables. It was weird.”

The play was developed from a scene Jason wrote while working at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York. At EST, he was given two actresses to work with for a night of vignettes, a white actress and a black actress. The scene he wrote takes place at a bus stop – while the women wait for the bus the black woman reads heady prose and the white woman raps to her headphones. The scene was performed at EST to a great response from the audience. After Jason completed his first play, “At a Loss,” his wife and frequent collaborator, Charlotte Cohn, a Broadway actress who has appeared in several productions at Center Stage, suggested for his next full-length he revisit the bus stop sketch. While a version of this scene remains in “Baltimore Black and White,” those characters are supporting the larger story in which we watch an interracial couple, a black man and a Jewish woman, move through life together from the playground, to an awkward reunion at an ATM and ultimately to their wedding night. When I asked Jason what he looked for in a good night of theatre he said, “I just want to be entertained – whatever that may be, I want to be excited.” When I asked him about his own plays, his response was that he wrote “what he would want to see.” Jason says, “I want people to laugh for a long time and then maybe be a bit moved and then think.” After seeing “Baltimore in Black and White,” I assumed race would be a major issue in Jason’s other work, but he told me that while all of his plays are comedies they are all very different in theme and tone. A question for you: Given Jason’s long-standing ties to our city, and the fact that he’s writing about this place, shouldn’t his play next come to Baltimore? –Fia Alvarez

“Baltimore in Black and White” plays thru May 21st at the cell theatre in New York.
Baltimore native Fia Alvarez studies playwriting in the graduate program at Juilliard.

New Executive Director at ACY

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In recent years, there have been several jobs whose responsibilities and burdens seem to require superhuman ability and patience.  With the faltering economy and shrinking foundation dollars, the non-profit executive director certainly falls into that category. Advocates for Children and Youth, the only multi-issue, statewide, child advocacy non-profit in the state, just hired its fifth executive director: Rebecca (“Becky”) Wagner on April 4th. Wagner boasts years of experience working in the trenches for low-income families. She founded Rainbow Place Shelter for homeless women in Montgomery County, where she served as director. Previously the exec of Interfaith Works in Rockville, she enabled 35,000 people to break away from poverty by helping them obtain housing, clothing, and education. Washingtonian Magazine named her Washingtonian of the Year in 2008; in 2010, she ranked among The Rockville Gazette’s State of Maryland Top Fifty Power Players.  ACY’s Honorary Chair, Susan Leviton, said they are excited to have Wagner as new addition because she is such a seasoned advocate. “Becky understands real people, real problems, and has worked on policies to make a difference,” says Leviton. When asked why now is the right time for a new director, Leviton replied, “Becky has tremendous experience working at the policy level and really knows what the needs of children and families are. She knows how we can work together to make things happen for them.” Leviton says they are hoping that, with Becky and new policies in place, ACY will be able eventually to expand help and awareness outside of Baltimore, throughout the entire state.

What’s Going On With Cheating Around Here? To be Fair, It’s Everywhere…

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In early spring, The Baltimore Sun revealed that city schools administrators spent $320,000 to hire and train test monitors to prevent cheating during the state’s annual standardized test. That story came soon after a friend had passed on to me “The Shadow Scholar” a first-hand account on The Chronicle of Higher Education website by a writer who churns out papers for college cheaters.  All this was a sad reminder of rumors that swirled last year about a Baltimore senior who had been caught cheating. I witnessed parents clash over dinner about how the school handled it (suspension not expulsion).

Race to Nowhere” a new documentary that was screened this winter at Park School sheds some light on the problem. The documentary follows over-achievers and their driven parents in the high-income central coast of California, but the angst and dysfunction of the students could easily be found at any affluent neighborhood in any city across the country, including Baltimore. Teens admit on camera to cheating and say they feel like every test, every grade, every paper is do or die and they just can’t always do their best after rising early for a full day of school, followed by hours of grueling athletics and late nights of strenuous homework. Yet they can’t fathom losing their place at the top of the class. Similarly, when someone at Baltimore’s George Washington Elementary School tampered with test booklets in 2008, was it fear of job loss that motivated the behavior? (The principal at the school was removed and the new teacher and current staff are doing their best to raise scores legitimately. See the George Washington Elementary rap “My Pencil” about passing the MSA starring teacher Mr. McCraw on our video landing below.)

I’m not trying to make excuses.  I’m trying to understand the shift in our culture.  Or has there been a shift? A friend pointed out that cheaters have been around since the beginning of time. Fair enough. But doesn’t it seem more rampant? Ask your kids. I hear it is more widespread, but what are you hearing?  More importantly, what do we do about it? 

Re-Branding Notre Dame: Name Changes and More

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Big changes are brewing at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

Mary Pat Suerkamp, long-time president of the school, announced her plans to step down after the 2011-12 academic year. Suerkamp oversaw the school for fifteen years — eons in the lifespan of college presidents. Over the course of that decade and a half, she oversaw a record fundraising campaign, and expanded the school’s offerings to include a handful of doctoral programs.

Suerkamp’s departure will come on the heels of another big change for Notre Dame:  as of September 9, the school will officially be known as Notre Dame of Maryland University. This re-naming is part of a larger re-branding campaign that’s aimed at getting the school’s “complex” character in front of the public eye.

As P.J. Mitchell, chair of the board of trustees, told the Baltimore Sun,  “One of the things we wanted to do was bring clarity to the brand,” she said. “People weren’t sure who we were because all they heard about was the women’s college.”

Notre Dame has always faced a bit of an uphill battle in terms of branding. For one, it shares a name with a better-known institution famous for its sports teams; our ND, in contrast, is a liberal arts college with an overwhelmingly female student body. But it’s just that reputation — for smallness, for being women-only — that the re-naming is supposed to shake up. The switch from “College of…” to “University” status is meant to highlight the school’s growing graduate programs, including newly minted — and co-ed — doctoral programs in education and pharmacy.  (There’s also the added benefit of getting rid of the current nomenclature’s awkward acronym, but no one’s putting that in any press releases.)

If all this rings a bell, that’s probably because several other educational institutions have similarly redefined themselves in recent years — Loyola College became Loyola University Maryland in 2009, and Villa Julie College switched to Stevenson University the previous year.

The Washington Post points out that market researchers have found that students think “university” sounds more prestigious than “college.” Can a name change and brand overhaul alter the way a school is perceived? We’ll keep an eye on Notre Dame to find out.

 

Photo courtesy Flickr user psalakanthos

Commencement Speakers: The Highlights

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No Oprah- or Obama-caliber superstars will descend on Baltimore this graduation season, but the speakers’ docket is still full of intriguing talent and fascinating lives. This years’ speakers include a soprano, an NFL players advocate, and a bevy of journalists and non-profit executives. A few notable speakers include:

Johns Hopkins‘ university-wide commencement on Thursday, May 26 will feature Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s flagship foreign affairs show, Editor-at-Large of TIME Magazine, columnist at the Washington Post, and New York Times bestselling author.

The SAIS ceremony — also May 26 — will include a speech by Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme.

Slated to speak at Peabody  (May 26 as well) is soprano Marni Nixon, “the voice of Hollywood,” who overdubbed the singing voices in movies including My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The King and I, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

For its May 26 commencement, the Johns Hopkins School of Education snagged Gary Knell, president of the Sesame Workshop, who helped bring Sesame Street to far-flung places including Egypt, South Africa, Russia, and China.

Goucher‘s got Dr. Ian G. Rawson, the managing director of Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti speaking on Friday, May 20.

On Friday, May 13 Stevenson will feature journalist Kimberly Dozier, formerly of CBS News and now with the Associated Press. Dozier recently penned an account of her time as a correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan — and her recovery after being wounded in a car bombing that killed a colleague.

Morgan State‘s speaker is Ruth Simmons, the first female president of Brown University and the first African American to serve as president of any Ivy League institution. The ceremony takes place on Saturday, May 21.

Towson’s commencement on Wednesday, May 25 will include a speech by Scott Pelley, who is slated to replace Katie Couric as CBS Evening News anchor.

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, lends some wisdom at the University of Maryland’s graduation ceremony in College Park on Thursday, May 19.

Country Feel in City Limits

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Hot House: 1022 Saint Georges Road, Baltimore, 21210

Storybook stone lodge/compound on 3.5 acres in North Roland Park: $2,195,000

What: Built in 1900, a Tudor style estate home, a hunting lodge in the city. Owned by recently deceased prominent attorney H. Morton “Mort” Rosen, who clearly loved to entertain. Formal living and dining rooms on the first floor are impressive — masculine but still warm-feeling, with a wood-paneled library, sun room and eat-in kitchen. Downstairs, a second catering kitchen and giant oak-paneled, timber-ceilinged great room, with huge fireplace and French doors out to the garden.  Awesome gathering space for big groups of family/friends. Five bedrooms, four full baths. Could use a little updating, mainly cosmetic, as the place has been scrupulously cared for. The grounds are landscaped and lovely, private and partly wooded.   Surprising that there’s no pool, although plenty of space for one.   

Where: at the end of a long private lane on St. Georges Road–one of  north Baltimore’s most beautiful streets.  Nice for walking, and good access to Roland Park amenities, private schools, post office, grocery and Starbucks. 

Why: One of a kind, extremely private home in the city. Masterful stonework outside and no-expense-spared details inside all done with great taste. 

Why not: House is a little dark, although views of the sunny, landscaped grounds are nice. 

Would suit: City lovers who need their own space. Don Corleone.

A Charming Farm House

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Hot House:  1201 Western Run Road, Cockeysville, 21030  

 19th century farmhouse, updated,  with 61+ acres on the Western Run:

 $1,345,000

What: A circa 1800 stone house that sits at the top of a long driveway, winding through the woods and over a private bridge.  The original two room structure has had several additions and a major expansion in 1994 by architect Walter Ramburg  to get to its current incarnation — a rambling, three bedroom, three ½ bath home with state of the art appliances, heating and cooling systems.  Large master suite on the second floor features a balcony overlooking the pool and gently rolling woods. Downstairs, a modern timbered kitchen (lots of wood trim here) and family room have similar views and an irresistibly cozy, dark, beam-ceilinged den with large Colonial fireplace and hand-hewn cupboards  — the main room of the original farmhouse. Lovely wooded property features a 50’ pool as well as a 1850’s timber barn — built for cattle, but suitable for horses or renovation as a studio. Adjoining guesthouse has two bedrooms and a kitchen, ideal for visiting family or friends with children.   

Where: Western Run Road – the lone old-fashioned charmer in a development of  new mansions in the hills behind the Hunt Valley Mall. 

Why: The woods, fields and mile of river frontage along the Western Run (a tributary of the Gunpowder River) are protected from development by the Maryland Environmental Trust, and a haven for native birds and wildlife.  

Why Not: Long driveway and old trees give a rural impression, but over-scale neighboring properties are a little too close.  Limited views  of the beautiful countryside from the house.

Would Suit: bird -watching Wegmans shopper.