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Building Tomorrow's Leaders in Baltimore

Jay Parker
Mr. Parker, Director of the Institute for Leadership & Purpose, reflects upon the work that has been done so far this school year as he prepares for the Middle Grades Partnership Leadership Closing Summit this Saturday, April 27th.
The walls of my office are adorned with posters covered in sticky notes. Multi-colored with a myriad of handwriting ranging from chicken scratch to pristine calligraphy. One poster, in particular, causes me to pause each day. It is a list of Hopes & Fears, an amalgamation of responses from middle schoolers across Baltimore. The students, hailing from a collection of charter, public, and independent schools anonymously shared these reflections at the Middle Grades Partnership Leadership Summit Calvert School hosted last November for two hundred area students.
“To succeed and live a long, happy life”
“To be an Olympian and contribute to the greater good”
“To overcome my fears”
“To be a successful lawyer”
“To get rich and become a music producer”
“Bugs, clowns, ghosts, small places”
“Rejection: To not living my life to my full potential”
“To not graduate college”
“Not being able to achieve my goals”
My Personal Favorite
“To become the first person on Mars. Or a comedian, or neuroscientist”
The beauty of this collage is not just the authenticity. “To become the first person on Mars. Or a comedian, or neuroscientist” makes me chuckle everydaywho doesn’t want all three?! The beauty lies in the perfect impossibility of deciphering which student contributed. Was it a Seventh Grader from Hamilton Middle School who hopes to become a lawyer? An Eighth Grader from Southwest Baltimore Charter School with Olympic dreams? Or one of my own students frightened about college? The lesson is simple: despite the school, despite the socioeconomic class, despite the neighborhood, young people dream big.

Wes Moore’s quote, inspired from his bestselling memoir The Other Wes Moore, reverberates loudly for these students. His story begins on the streets of Baltimore as he recalls two young men with “one name, two fates,” whose stories diverge, seemingly by the difference in expectations placed on them by others. As Wes Moore often shares, these expectations do not simply appear; they come from those who care and love these young people. The school does not matter, the neighborhood does not matter; it is our stories and dreams that matter most.
This idea of expectations is the foundation of our work to build leadership capacity in students. As we thoughtfully grow our Institute for Leadership & Purpose at Calvert School, we are continually looking outward, knowing that our purpose is not merely to cultivate leadership for our OWN students, but for ALL students. It is our Public Purpose. In a city like Baltimore, defined by silos of race and class, looking outward is not just a good ideait is imperative. We must care for, love, and believe in these students and those dedicated to serving them as teachers. At the core of this work is elevating expectations for all.

Leadership through Partnership

Fortunately, we are not doing this work alone. Founded in 2005, the Middle Grades Partnership (MGP) is a dynamic non-profit that has created a network of eight one-to-one partnerships between sixteen public and independent schools. These schools share a collective goal of elevating expectations for young people, regardless of environment. The backbone of MGP is a five-week summer session grounded in academics, but balanced with arts, STEM, and, of course, a healthy dose of fun. The results speak for themselves. Since 2005, over four thousand Baltimore City middle school students have participated in MGP, and the organization’s impact is powerful with a vast majority of students matriculating into the area’s top public schools and independent schools. In 2018 alone, approximately 91% of the Eighth Graders met this criteria highlighting MGP’s success in elevating expectations for these young people.
Last summer, with our Institute for Leadership & Purpose in its nascent stages, my colleague Neal McMahon and I were honored with a unique opportunity to stand alongside MGP to establish a long-term, School Year Leadership Program. One that would cultivate a culture of leadership across multiple schools and hundreds of students. Last November, our program kicked off, and our journey to inspire tomorrow’s leaders across Baltimore began.
As Wendy Samet, MGP Executive Director notes, “We are so excited about the evolution of the school year program. Middle Grades Partnership unites public and private school communities to create indelible experiences that enable students to thrive as friends, scholars, leaders, and citizens. The Institute for Leadership & Purpose is a key partner in this mission.”

Pedagogy of Leadership – The Power of Relationships

Inspiring leadership is no simple feat, and we sometimes appear to disagree on how it is accomplished best. Mike Pardee, gcLi faculty member, notes teaching leadership is “an improvisational art.” As a leadership practitioner myself, I know this to be true. Adaptability is key in cultivating culture, yet there is a balance to be reached. Alternatively, Dr. Ted Fish, gcLi Executive Director, implores that schools must be intentional, strategic, and structural when effectively implementing leadership ethos. I believe these two seemingly polar ideas are not so polar after all—in fact, they complement each other. But how do we reconcile the notions of improvisation and intention to build a powerful leadership program across the MGP community?


I always come back to relationships. In his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge opined, “when relationships improve, everything improves.” So this is where we begin—elevating expectations by putting relationships first, and product second. And, beautiful results are emerging amongst our Middle Grades Partnership community:
  • A variety of student-driven, social action projects have been collectively brainstormed throughout our first year. These range from Teen Mental Health (McDonogh & Mt. Royal) to Women & Leadership (Bryn Mawr & Cross Country) to Reflection Circles (Hampstead Hill & Friends School) to Baltimore Ceasefire (Calvert School & Hamilton Middle). These projects will move to the action phase in year two of our program.
  • A partnership with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), an advocacy organization that cultivates community organizers in urban Baltimore neighborhoods. BUILD organizers worked with each of eight partnerships at our November summit and have assisted with our overall program structure and strategy.
  • A mentoring alliance with the Athletics Department at Towson University, whereby student-athletes in the university’s Total Tiger Leadership Council will work alongside students in each partnership.
  • A vibrant collection of keynote speakers at our November and April summits which include Dr. Sonja Santelises (CEO of Baltimore City Schools), Mr. Leon Pinkett (Baltimore City Councilman) as well as a multitude of Baltimore civic leaders.
Discovering Our Public Purpose

At the 2011 annual conference, NAIS President Patrick Bassett stated, “There is a Public Purpose to Private Education.” This concept of public purpose is a powerful lens through which we can envision the future of independent schools, and one that resonates deeply with us at Calvert School. It is built into our mission and woven into the fabric of our community.

Standing alongside these dedicated educators and students from across our city has been a humbling and rewarding experience. We are working toward a collective goal: complementing each other through an ongoing process of evaluation and reevaluation to serve tomorrow’s leaders by empowering them with the confidence and capacity to build a better city, a better world, and a better future.

This article was originally published on the gcLi Leadership Blog.
Calvert School is a coed independent lower and middle school.