Kelly Balchunas is wrestling with the decision about whether to send her daughter to Roland Park Elementary School this fall.
Although she knows is one of the best in the city, she worries that it might not be the right fit for her daughter, Eryn, who is a quick study and already attends pre-kindergarten at the New Century School in Fells Point.
“I want to use Roland Park Elementary, but I’m worried it won’t be able to accommodate where my daughter is intellectually,” Balchunas said.
Kelly Balchunas, 39, and her husband, Brian, were living in Canton when they were married in 2005. They considered starting a family and weren’t enamored with the public schools in the neighborhood.
Like many couples in Baltimore, they began looking for a home in an area with a school system where they felt comfortable sending their kids. Brian Balchunas works in Beltsville, so they began to look for homes in Howard County because the school system has a stellar reputation.
Since they were shopping for homes at the peak of a wildly-inflated housing market, the couple was having problems finding a home they liked in their price range.
“$900,000 for avocado-(colored) appliances?” Kelly Balchunas joked.
They were also considering homes in the Stoneleigh neighborhood in Baltimore County, but because of traffic, living there would have added an extra 20 minutes to Brian Balchunas’ commute.
So they decided to stay in the city and purchased a home in Chatham, which is zoned for Roland Park Elementary and Middle School.
But as it comes time to send Eryn to school, both Kelly and Brian Balchunas are struggling with their decision. They have also applied to Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School and are considering sending Eryn back to the New Century School for kindergarten.
“It’s crazy the pressure I feel as a parent,” Kelly Balchunas said.
Despite many families struggling with the decision to send their kids to Baltimore City Public Schools, data from the school system shows that it’s a decision more families are making.
In 2008, city schools announced enrollment had increased in schools, breaking a nearly four-decade decline in enrollment. At that time, the schools posted a boost in enrollment of 694 students from the previous year.
According to statistics for this school year, there are 84,212 students enrolled in Baltimore City Public Schools, with 43,520 of those students in grades between pre-kindergarten and fifth grade. According to Live Baltimore, an organization dedicated to promoting living in the city, there were 83,800 students enrolled in Baltimore City schools for the previous school year, an increase of 934 students from the 2009-2010 school year.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, chair of the council’s Education Committee, said she can relate to parents' worries about sending their kids to school. Clarke sent all four of her children to Roland Park Elementary and what, at the time, was Roland Park Junior High School.
Clarke, who is originally from Providence R.I., was relatively new to the city when her children were getting to be of school age. She said that she had a rough time with the schools initially.
When she went to check out the school where she would be sending her kids, she was sent to two wrong schools before she was actually sent to Roland Park where she was zoned.
“I was also intimidated to enter into the public schools,” Clarke said.
Clarke said when her kids started going to Roland Park Elementary it wasn’t the school that it is today. She said that she and other parents had to get involved and help make changes at the school, such as bringing in a new principal. But once they were able to do that she was happy with the education her children received.
She said that she sees a similar model being replicated in the efforts of the Village Parents, a group of families in Charles Village that are getting involved with the neighborhood schools and helping to advocate for area families to send their kids to school there.
Charles Village residents Chauna Brocht and her partner Kris Misage are two of the parents that have been involved with efforts to get residents to send their kids to Margaret Brent Elementary or Barclay Elementary School.
They intend to send their 4-year-old daughter to pre-kindergarten at .
Brocht said they hadn’t really considered sending their kids to Margaret Brent until they attended a Village Parents meeting about the school. Brocht said after the meeting they took a tour of the school, and she was impressed because it reminded her of the elementary school she attended in Baltimore County.
“When we went to visit, we found it to be such a warm and welcoming place,” Brocht said.
After that, she and her partner began volunteering at the school and found that they were comfortable with the idea of sending their kids to Margaret Brent.
Karen DeCamp, director of neighborhood programs at Greater Homewood Community Corp., said when the organization was applying for a grant to help launch a program to market schools in Charles Village to middle class families, it held focus groups to find out what parents want from schools.
She said parents were looking for schools with an acceptable level of standardized test scores, a high level of professionalism among the staff and a “nurturing” environment.
Another issue was making the schools more attractive so they had some “curb appeal,” and making residents more willing to come in and see what the school had to offer.
“We first really had to work on perception,” DeCamp said.
David Conn, a parent of two children and the chair of the project to add middle school in Mount Washington, said the neighborhood went through a similar process about 10 years ago that parents in Charles Village are going through now.
He said turning into arguably the best grade school in Baltimore started with the willingness of parents to send their kids to the school, but to also volunteer and spread the word throughout the community that the school was an excellent institution.
As a result the school has been named a school and last year was home to the city's .
"I hope that parents and other community members throughout the city can take some hope and inspiration from what we're doing in Mount Washington," Conn said.
This year, in response to the desire of neighborhood families, Mount Washington started adding middle school grades, Conn said. He added that most of the fifth graders from the previous year—with a very few exceptions—returned to go to sixth grade.
"I think that shows that a successful program can provide the assurance to parents that their kids can get an excellent education in the Baltimore City School System," Conn said.
Clarke said that Brocht’s experience is one that is becoming more common among parents and the way city public schools are perceived.
“One of the great problems we have is the old stereotype and word of mouth that the public schools don’t do a good job,” Clarke said.
Clarke credited city schools chief executive officer, Dr. Andres Alonso, with helping to change the perception of city public schools and making them a more inviting option for families.
"I give a lot of credit to Dr. Alonso. He’s a dynamic leader, he’s appealed to the entire city to support our schools,” Clarke said. “He’s a hard worker and a visionary. I don’t agree with every decision he makes, but he’s certainly energized the system.”
Despite the progress, Clarke acknowledges that there’s work to be done and that there will always be a sense of anxiety for families getting ready to send their kids to school, even for those choosing between private schools. But she also said taking some of those anxieties away and making the choice easier for families is crucial to the future of Baltimore.
“Our whole future depends on our ability to attract and keep young families,” Clarke said.
For now, families such as the Balchunas will have to wrestle with their decision, and hope that they are making the best choice for their family.
Kelly Balchunas said she intends to attend a visiting day at Roland Park Elementary School on Thursday, and hopes it will make the decision a little easier.
“I am looking forward to the visiting day,” Kelly Balchunas said.