This year, the city’s four-year-old Baltimore Design School hired Dr. Melissa Patrylo as its new principal. Located in the heart of Baltimore’s burgeoning arts and entertainment district, Station North (more specifically, Greenmount West), the school currently enrolls students in grades six through ten, with plans to expand through twelfth grade within two years. It’s housed in a beautifully renovated 100-year-old historic building that previously served as a bottle-making factory and then a clothing factory before becoming vacant, falling into disrepair, and being used on some of the scarier scenes of The Wire. Now, with loads of light coming through its floor-to-ceiling windows, state-of-the-art technology filling its classrooms, and energetic teachers focusing its students, the school aims to be the first in Maryland to graduate students with both a Baltimore City high school diploma and sound preparation for continued education in the fields of architecture, graphic design, or fashion design. With Dr. Patrylo at the helm, there’s no telling where these students will go.
Tracing Dr. Patrylo’s dynamic background is a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle whose vast assortment of pieces don’t always seem to fit together logically, but that ultimately result in a fascinating arrangement. There’s her 30-plus years of service with the Miami-Dade County Public School system, in which she held positions as varied as curriculum specialist, coach, principal, and director of a project to re-build schools following Hurricane Andrew. There’s the fact that she is one of only 200 women in the history of France to be awarded a knighthood by the country’s government, a prestigious honor bestowed on Patrylo for her decades of service to the country. Then there’s her (barely there) spare time, in which the part-time resident of Brussels, Belgium enjoys translating hieroglyphics written by ancient Egyptians and playing golf. Since coming to Baltimore this year to accept the position as principal at the Baltimore Design School, she’s added another hobby to her eclectic list: Exploring Charm City.
Recently, Dr. Patrylo took time out of her busy school day (she’s at school by 6:00am, usually there past 8:00pm) to talk with Baltimorefishbowl. She filled us in on what inspired her to leave retirement, move to Baltimore and run the nascent Baltimore Design School. During our conversation, she shared a bit about how her fulfilling former career will inform her current leadership position, and how she envisions the future of this promising new school in Baltimore.
The Baltimore Design School has been described as a transformational school. What exactly does that mean?
About four years ago, the Baltimore City School district allowed for the introduction of transformational schools. Each of these schools has a specific theme and allows individuals –corporations, business, individuals—to develop their own school. The real difference in these schools is their public-private funding structures. We get half of our funding under the auspices of Baltimore City schools, but we also receive financial assistance from our independent board of directors. There’s joint supervision between the school’s independently chosen board of directors and the City of Baltimore. But we march to our own drum.
Are transformational schools bound by the same curriculum requirements as traditional Baltimore City middle-and high schools?
Yes. They have the same testing schedule. They also issue graduating students a Baltimore City Public School diploma.
Where do Baltimore Design School’s students come from, and how do they land here?
For students in grades 6 through 8, the school is part of the Baltimore City choice system: Parents can take their child to any city public school they want. But there are no buses provided, though we do supply vouchers for the MTA bus. Our students come from every corner of the city. Some spend two hours a day on the bus. But students don’t have to be Baltimore city residents. Kids from outside the city can pay tuition to attend. We’re here to provide students these golden opportunities.
Is there an application process?
For the middle school, there’s no required art background. But for ninth grade, admittance is by portfolio. Current middle school students have to re-apply for high school. In the middle school, students are exposed to art and design, and we help them develop their portfolio. At the end of eighth grade, students start putting their portfolio together. We offer free portfolio workshops for our students and any others.
Is there competition between the Baltimore Design School and the Baltimore School for the Arts?
No. The Baltimore School for the Arts is a fine arts school. Our students learn fine arts and drawing but, overall, they are two completely different worlds. Where I come from in Miami, a design and architectural school has coexisted with a fine arts school in the same school district for 25 years.
I understand that you co-founded a consulting firm, Small Schools by Design, which had something to do with the launch of Baltimore Design School. Tell me about that.
That’s right. The blueprint for the school was written on a laptop in my kitchen in Williamsburg, Virginia in 2009.
You spent 32 years with the Miami-Dade Public County School System. What were some of the highlights of your time there?
I taught advanced placement French and German. I’m a competitive golfer, and as Title IX was being introduced, I was one of the first women to coach an all-boys’ high school golf team. When Hurricane Andrew destroyed everything, including my home, I played a lead role in Project Phoenix, the governor’s hurricane recovery program to rebuild schools. One of the most exciting things was that, with these funds, we took students in devastated areas and, over the summer, gave them real growth opportunities via field trips. Hundreds of students in Miami had never seen the ocean, had never been to the theater. I was able to change that for them.
In 2000, you were awarded a knighthood by the government of France for more than 35 years of service to the country. Talk a little about that.
I still work for the French government and have done so for many years in all kinds of capacity. I’ve acted as a translator and interpreter. I work to support French instruction in schools; I serve on the board of a prestigious organization that seeks to bring French art, literature, and opera into the United States. I’ve had a varied career with the French. I’m a U.S. citizen but a Belgium resident. Last year I lived there for seven months of the year.
So, here you are in Baltimore, at what seems like a very progressive and creative school. Why did you decide to take on this role after you’d been officially retired for four years?
My son went to William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia for undergraduate school. I fell in love with Williamsburg. So before I took this job, I was living there, traveling and working on my golf game. I was officially retired and recently widowed. I never would have come back to work before the opportunity at Baltimore Design School presented itself. My son said to me: Mom, you better do it. You have so much energy. You have to do this.
Williamsburg, Virginia is a far cry from Baltimore. How do you like it here so far?
It’s a great small city. The architecture is magnificent. I’ve been exploring different parts of the city every weekend. I purposely moved right downtown in a big high rise with a wonderful view. Coming from Williamsburg, with its horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps, it’s really exciting for me. Plus, every single person I’ve met in Baltimore has been friendly, even the parents of students who get in trouble.
Every school has a certain feel to it, a personality if you will. How would you describe Baltimore School of Design’s?
I would say the emerging personality is that of a creative mind. We can see in some of these young people their beginning talents. I think, if we keep on this track, they’re going to be spectacular by the time they’re twelfth graders. The school is attracting wonderful community resources to help us. We’re looking to set up internship programs. These kids have no idea the opportunities they’ll have. Great colleges will give them scholarships.
Talk about the relevance of the school’s location.
I think that, because of the gradual transformation of the neighborhood as an emerging arts district, in ten years you won’t be able to recognize it. The same thing happened in Miami’s arts district. It’s just a matter of time. I also like that we’re three blocks away from the city school board.
In addition to the neighborhood being a burgeoning arts district, it’s also a residential area. How does that play into the school?
The neighbors have watched this school being built. I want them to be a part of the school community. They’ll be my eyes and ears of the school. They’re really great people. I attended a neighborhood block party. I have a couple residents serving as volunteers. I am trying to hire some of the community members into the school. The folks working as school security and at the front desk are neighbors. I want people to know about this building in their neighborhood.
What are a few of your biggest priorities as principal of the school?
I want to get a mentorship program going. I’m also looking into a peer mediation program. If there’s a discipline issue, students will be trained on how to deal with these issues—peers watching over peers. And uniforms. I’m coming from a system with no uniforms. Never in my career have I been in a school with uniforms. I’m philosophically opposed to uniforms. But I see the need for them. Times have changed. Fashion has changed. Clothes are much more form fitting. They can be distractions and cause classroom management problems. Additionally, I know the cost of clothes. Sometimes our city buses have been known to pass students by because they’re not wearing uniforms. So, there are some really positive reasons to have uniforms.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your new job?
Everyone has been helping me make the transition. I don’t have challenges as far as equipment or supplies; there are plenty of resource for everybody. I have wonderful, sharp teachers, so no personnel challenges. I’m struggling to think of challenges. Overall, it’s been delightful.
What’s the best part about your job?
The kids. The funny thing is that I have not been in a junior high in 35 years. I taught junior high one year, as a brand new teacher. I don’t think kids have changed. A 12-year-old is still a 12-year-old. They’re kind of exploring life. It’s fun watching them have these issues, like boyfriend-girlfriend problems. I’m a principal who really likes her job. I’m not here for the money. I’m here because I want to be here.
What would you like to see happen at the school over the next five to ten years?
I want to be recognized as one of the top ten schools in the country by U.S. News and World Report. That was a priority when I worked in Miami, and we always made that list. I want to see honors/advanced placement courses at the school. It’s important to me that we are recognized as an advanced school making these kids college-ready. I also want to initiate a strong overseas exchange program. We did that in Miami, and I want to get that going over here. I’m also looking at offering Chinese here. As a language person, I feel the necessity of offering an Asian language. Plus, I believe in these kids having cultural opportunities, and Baltimore has so many. My idea is to beg, borrow and steal to take them to all sorts of cultural events.
You must be exhausted at the end of the day. What do you do to unwind, relax?
Being that I’m here in Baltimore alone, there are sad points about that because I’m a people person. I’ve been exploring museums—the Walters is my favorite. I’m starting a new life here, and I’m looking forward to meeting new people.
What’s something your student body would be surprised to find out about you?
I don’t think they know I’ve already retired and I’ve come back to be with them. I get a hundred hugs a day from them. Now, I have a third life.
What would you like the city of Baltimore to know about the Baltimore Design School?
That we are young, we’re dynamic, we’re emerging. We are here making a name for ourselves. We’re in a forward-moving direction every single day. We’re great and getting better.
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