Baltimore Schools-Once Upon A Time

By J E Firth <>
October 6, 2003

     I arrived in Baltimore in 1932. We previously lived in Harrisburg PA where I had just completed the 5th grade. My mother wasted no time in taking me to Public School #32 located on the corner of Guilford Ave. and Lanvale Street to enroll me in the 6th grade. She was not aware that at that time the Baltimore School System was rated among the top ten in the USA. It had achieved that standing under the guidance of Dr. David Weglein, the then Superintendent of Public Instruction. My mother was informed that since I was a student from another school jurisdiction, it was Baltimore's school policy that ALL such students must repeat their attained grade. My mother was appalled! She, however, persisted in insisting that I be placed in the sixth grade. Finally, the principal relented on the condition I take a test. I took the test and passed it with an excellent grade.

     As the last semester of the sixth grade approached, my parents received a letter from the principal; it stated that because of my excellent grades, I had been selected upon completion of the sixth grade to attend an accelerated Jr. High School. It went on to explain that the curriculum was quite advanced and would require their approval. In addition, I was to be informed of the intense study required that must be maintained. In short, a successful student would achieve doing three years of Junior high school in two. My parents and I agreed.

     At that time, there were only two such schools in Baltimore. One was The Edgar Allan Poe School #1, located at Fayette and Green Streets; the other was Robert E. Lee #49, located on Cathedral St. between Biddle and Preston Sts. I was selected to go to #49.

     These were not neighborhood schools; the students came from all over Baltimore City via public transportation. There were no school buses in those days.

     The school was directly across the street from The Bryn Mawr School For Girls. It was then empty because they had located to a new site in the suburbs. Back in the early 20's, #49 had been a boys' private school and later acquired by Baltimore City. Its next door neighbor was the Maryland Surgical Society, a medical affiliate of some kind. The school itself was quite small, housing probably less than 175 coed students. Each class contained less than 20 students.

     During those two years we received instruction in Math (including algebra), elementary science, American and Ancient History, Hygiene, music, latin (2 years), art, civics, geography and English (including grammar and classic literature). A couple of periods a week the boys would walk up through the park overlooking the B&O Mt Royal Station to a group of "portables" where we received instruction in electricity, mechanical drawing, sheet metal and carpentry. (To this day, I still have some of the things I made there). The girls received instruction in home economics (sewing and cooking). We even managed to squeeze in a gym class. (The gymnasium building is extant and is located on Maryland Ave, directly behind the school). Quite a grueling task for young teens, wouldn't you say? Yes, there were a few drop-outs, but not many.

     I recall Larry Adler, the harmonica virtuoso, coming to perform for us. He had graduated from #49 a few years earlier. He went on to become world famous, performing with philharmonic orchestras. He resided in the UK most of his life.

     I graduated in February 1936. The school closed down in the early 50's. School #1 was also boarded up around the same time.

     A group got together in the late 80's and organized a "reunion" of ALL living graduates who attended #49. It was held in Symphony Hall across the street from the old school on the site which was formerly occupied by the Old Bryn Mawr School, it having been torn down down several years earlier. Old #49, after having been closed down over 30 years, was purchased by the medical society next door and converted into office space. At the reunion, we were given a tour of Old #49, but all we saw were offices; none of the old classrooms remained.

     On the positive side, however, I was able to greet Miss Scarborough who had taught me math 50 years earlier. What a thrill!! She was feeble, but I guess like most of us, she felt she just HAD to attend that reunion. She past away in 1993 at the ripe age of 101! Another happy event was being able to greet fellow students, "kids" I hadn't seen in over 50 years.

     Today, we continually read about the problems the Baltimore education system is experiencing; the inability to read, lack of discipline, truancy and the disgraceful violence. What has caused the degradation of a once successful education system? Experimentation? Inept teachers? Political correctness? Politically motivated Boards of Education? Probably all of the above have contributed their share.

     Yes, Baltimore has some so-called "magnet schools", but I doubt If they can meet the standards of their by-gone predecessors.

     Baltimore Polytechnic is supposedly a "good" school; I don't know if they still have an "A" course, but if they do, I doubt if it can compete with its nationally known predecessor.

     Lastly, there is The Baltimore City College, often referred to as "the castle on the hill" and the writer's Alma Mater. I graduated in 1939, the year of its 100th anniversity. William Donald Schaefer, our former mayor, governor and now State Comptroller, was a classmate. Is City a "good" school today? Perhaps, but I doubt if it compares with the one I once knew.

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