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A Community Pitches In
To Repair Its Schools

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A lack of maintenance and funding had taken a toll on Baltimore's schools. A summertime call to the community for help, though, yielded donations and thousands of volunteers who completed hundreds of thousands of dollars of work. Included: A description of a citywide volunteer effort.

At first mention, a kindergarten round-up sounds like an all-hands effort to corral children at a recess gone awry.

Stephen Gibson, a middle school principal in the in the Baltimore City Public School System, is not working in a new school this year, but it almost feels like it.

Gibson's school, Hamilton Middle School, was among many in Baltimore renovated this summer through the city's Believe in Our Schools campaign. Volunteers, including tradesmen and contractors, did about $750,000 worth of work at the aging school, including overhauling bathrooms, painting, and cleaning up the grounds.

"They have done a phenomenal job. There is no way this work could have gotten done [without volunteers]," said Gibson about the renovations at his school, the main part of which was built in 1931. "I'm astounded -- they have done so much more than I even could have dreamed of."


Volunteers did a variety of work in the Baltimore schools this summer.
(Photo courtesy of the Baltimore mayor’s office.)


One hundred and forty-two of Baltimore's 184 schools were repaired this summer. Approximately 4,600 volunteers put in more than 30,000 hours of work, as well as provided money and supplies for everything from painting classrooms to landscaping to vouchers for haircuts for needy children. Many staff and students returned to schools this month that looked reborn.

Now that the army of volunteers has been mobilized and bonds forged with the schools, city and school officials are hoping these partnerships will continue through this school year and beyond.

"We tried to transform the look of the schools, so people could see there was support for the schools," said David Costello, director of the Baltimore mayor's Office of Community Investment. "It's a call to action to the community to step up. Now we are broadening and deepening the effort. We are trying to get parents and the community involved in organizing work days."

By the end of the school year, these volunteer efforts will save the school system between $5 million and $10 million in repair work, Costello estimates. And all of the work is getting done at no cost to the district.

"This is also about partnerships and getting people to step up to help the schools," Costello continued. "This likely will include a wide range of things. If you can't mobilize people for kids in school, what can you get people out for?"

A CALL FOR HELP

The idea for Believe in Our Schools began to take shape in April, after Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley met with Chicago mayor Richard M.Daley about a similar program in Chicago.

Costello's office put out the call to the community, and people began signing up. Volunteers worked on Saturdays and in the evenings. Some companies even gave their employees time off to paint or help with other projects.


Many of the schools looked cleaner and brighter after volunteers painted.
(Photo courtesy of the Baltimore mayor's office.)


One of those who came forward was Ron DeJuliis, business manager of the Operating Engineers Local 37, vice president of the building trades union, and an alumnus of the city school system.

"I had been following the financial plight of the school system," DeJuliis told Education World. "I went through the Baltimore public schools, and I thought this was a good way to revitalize the schools and support them. So I contacted the mayor."

The union and contractors provided materials, labor, money, and encouragement. After reviewing all the schools, the union decided to tackle Hamilton Middle School because it needed the most work.

"We exceeded the repairs we wanted to make," DeJuliis said, adding he had estimated the school needed $500,000 worth of work, and volunteers did an additional $250,000. "I sometimes see the principal at 7-11 when we are getting coffee. He dances out the door."

The school has three floors, a basement, and portable classrooms. Volunteers painted every classroom, all the hallways, stairwells, and repaired and painted 16 bathrooms. The portable classrooms were sandblasted and painted and glass replaced in numerous windows.

"We had people in on weekends for six or seven weeks," DeJuliis said. "The first weekend we had 165 people there. We averaged about 25 people working each weekend." Several of the volunteers attended the school, and said it was great to be working there, he added.

Workers repaired all of the school's toilets, using donated equipment. "In some bathrooms, there was only one toilet working," according to DeJuliis. "You could not walk into the restrooms because of the stench. Guys had to work with respirators on. There had been leaks and drains were clogged." Broken partitions also were replaced.

Eight hundred aging lockers, many with jagged edges, were hauled out and replaced with new ones. In addition, electricians went through the building, repaired wiring and replaced bulbs and fixtures. Some insulation was replaced as well, and work was done on the grounds.

Volunteers pressed on, even though the temperature in the building often was between 95 and 100 degrees while they were working, DeJuliis said. Other community members donated food for the volunteers' lunches.

"There was a tremendous amount of cooperation among the contractors and tradesmen," he continued. "It was a pretty rewarding experience. It was just very neat to watch. Everyone was happy to come in and do the work. It just turned out so nice."

PAINT BY THE TRUCKLOAD

Another critical contributor to Believe in Our Schools was the Sherwin-Williams Company, which manufactures paint. "I saw an article in the newspaper [seeking volunteers] and thought this was something Sherwin-Williams should be involved with," said Ray Miller, district sales manager for the Baltimore-area -- and another Baltimore schools' alumnus. "One of the priorities of the program was painting, and paint is certainly something we can help with."

Some students showed Miller pictures of their schools' interiors, and he was appalled at the conditions. "I couldn't believe it," he told Education World. "It didn't look like that when I was there, and it shouldn't look like that now."

The company donated about 3,000 gallons of paint, the equivalent of a truckload, as well as hundreds of brushes, rollers, and trays. Someone from the mayor's office took school orders, and several stores in the area mixed paint, put together the orders, and delivered them to the schools, said Miller. Each school needed between 50 and 150 gallons of paint.

And the most popular color? Dover White, an off-white hue.

"Obviously, painting is an easy, simple thing to do that makes the greatest impact on the environment," Miller added. "I think students and teachers deserve a clean, fresh environment to work in."

Carole Green, principal of Edgewood Elementary School, a pre-K to fifth grade school, can testify to the effect fresh paint can have on a building. About 35 volunteers, including parents, staff members and their families, and community members, turned out to paint the inside of the school. The hallways now are light blue with a darker blue trim, accented by blue classroom doors.

"I think it looks wonderful," Green said. "When you walk in the door, the paint really brightens up the hallways. This is my seventh year here, and the first time I can remember this much painting. We got a little paint last year."

During this school year, Green said she is hoping enough volunteers will turn out to paint all the classrooms.

BRIGHT AND CLEAN

Yorkwood Elementary School, another pre-K to grade 5 school, also greeted its students and faculty with a clean, freshly painted, less cluttered school this year.

"They [city personnel] sent out some people to assess conditions, so we came up with a list," said Yorkwood's principal, Deborah Sharpe. Volunteers did a lot of painting, waxing, cleaning, and discarding of old equipment and furniture. Lots also were paved, sidewalks fixed, and the grounds spruced up.

"I thought it was fabulous," Sharpe said. "We need all the help we can get. I think parents and staff will be able to walk in and see and appreciate the changes. Students see the freshness and brightness of pretty yellow paint."

BECOMING ONE COMMUNITY

Volunteers talked with Education World about the satisfaction they felt from having a hand in cleaning up the schools.

CitiFinancial is involved with the Baltimore schools on an ongoing basis, by providing funding and mentoring, but saw Believe in Our Schools as a chance to have an immediate impact, said Pat Robbins, CitiFinancial's director of community relations.

"I like it because the reach is going to be so huge," Robbins told Education World. "These kids need it so badly. If we can contribute to reversing the negativity toward the schools, good. If kids can walk into a clean and painted school, it shows people care."

So far CitiFinancial volunteers have cleaned, painted, and landscaped. One group of 30 from the human resources department spent a Friday painting at one school. "It helped the school and the department," she said. "They have had more fun."

The company plans to give the school a poster with pictures of people who volunteered. "We have all these smiling faces," said Robbins. "This way, they [faculty and students] can see all the people who helped clean up their school."

Susan Warner, a resident who often assists with community projects, said she signed up for Believe in Our Schools when she read the city was seeking helpers. "I heard them say they needed volunteers and I try to do things when I can," said Warner, who spent numerous summer Saturdays painting schools. "Everyone should be able to spare a few hours. If I couldn't go in my neighborhood schools, I asked to go where I was needed. I try to do things that particularly help children."

MOVING FORWARD

The call to the community was necessary because time and tight budgets took their toll on the schools. "A lot of this had to do with the age of the buildings and deferred maintenance," Baltimore's Costello said. Financial problems at the district level prompted the state and city to form a partnership to oversee the schools, and the city loaned the district money during a cash flow crisis. "We gave them time and money to get their house in order. They are working on their finances now.

"There has been a lot of cynicism about the school system. The way to deal with cynicism is to work through it," he added. Clearly, kids and teachers need an environment conducive to learning and teaching. This makes teachers and students feel the community does care."

Costello now is hoping that the schools and residents keep the efforts going, and continue to build partnerships with the business community. The city is encouraging special pitch-in days, such as a college day, when students from area colleges would be encouraged to spend a day cleaning up schools. Holding contests among schools to see which ones have the most volunteers also has been proposed.

Yorkwood Elementary School plans to invite students and parents to help with projects around the building every quarter. "We want to re-enforce the importance of respecting the building," Sharpe, the principal said.

At Hamilton Middle School, staff members and students recently honored DeJuliis for all his efforts, and now the school band and chorus will perform at some union functions, and students will provide artwork for offices, Gibson, the school's principal, said.

"This is a prime example of how communities and schools working together can get things done," Gibson told Education World. "I'd like to see the effort replicated all over the country."


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