Nearly 200 Henderson-Hopkins families turned out in a show of pride on a balmy Baltimore evening to honor African American heritage and participate in “Storyteller Literacy Night.”
The February 15th event, sponsored by the PTA to celebrate Black History Month, featured remarks by Bernard Young, president of the Baltimore City Council, and Keith Booth, a member of the 1998 NBA champion Chicago Bulls, a host of local talent from nearby Morgan State University, and the storytelling prowess of two long-time Baltimore residents.
“We are so pleased that tonight we are able to be the bridge that connects the school community and surrounding community to be united as one,” said Tameka Suber, mistress of ceremonies and president of the Henderson-Hopkins Parent Teacher Association. Henderson-Hopkins, an elementary and middle school, is a Johns Hopkins Partnership School and operated by the Johns Hopkins School of Education.
Six members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, devoted to developing leaders and promoting brotherhood and academic excellence, kicked off the evening by stepping, evoking the tradition of competitive schoolyard song and dance rituals practiced by historically African American fraternities and sororities that began in the early 1900s.
They were followed by three members of the Miss Black & Gold Royal Court, an auxiliary to the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, who dressed in black and were draped in gold sash, recited a poem asserting their determination to be models of success, intelligence and poise.
A slide show honoring great African-American men and women throughout history served as a backdrop, driving home the message that everyone, no matter their color or circumstances, can attain greatness if they stay in school, get good grades, work hard and have faith in themselves.
Councilman Young cited the late Clarence “Du” Burns, the first African American elected mayor and a product of East Baltimore, as an inspiration to his own rise to power. Booth, an assistant coach on Loyola University’s men’s basketball team, said it was a source of pride that the late Reggie Lewis, a star forward with the Boston Celtics, and Sam Cassell, an All Star guard for the Houston Rockets for most of his career, grew up within two blocks of Henderson-Hopkins, a gleaming glass and concrete structure that has added a spit of polish to a gritty neighborhood.
Both men exhorted the children to dream big, and the rapt audience vibrating with the energy and enthusiasm of a boisterous school assembly, took it all in, loudly affirming the speakers’ nuggets of wisdom and cheering heartily for the performers, as if acknowledging that their own fortunes were bound up in the successes of the talented individuals on stage. Bob Houston, a local photographer pressed into action for the evening and legend who shot civil rights rallies in the 1960s, was greeted warmly when his presence was noted.
Capping off the first part of the program was Kennedy Bell, a vocal performance major at Morgan State, who brought to mind Nina Simone’s wide range as she delivered a stirring rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that inspired the audience to join in.
Then the families decamped to the Weinberg Library where they were regaled with stories from Charlie Dugger, who has taught in the Baltimore City public schools for 45 years, and Deborah Pierce-Fakunle, a Baltimore resident from Accra, Ghana, who shared the African oral tradition of storytelling, song and movement that is at the heart of African American culture. Black people during slavery combined English with African vocabularies to create a language that promoted community and solidarity, and was a form of communication contrived to elude the detection of their masters.
In the Family Resource Center, parents and children were encouraged to read any one of the 300 books in the school’s library, play words games introducing them to, among other things, African American inventors, and enjoy coloring and crafts.
Students Recognized for Academic Honors
Earlier in the day, Henderson-Hopkins students were recognized for academic honors. Earning a place on the honor roll at Henderson-Hopkins is no easy task. Students must receive an E or “excellent” grade (95 or above in middle school) in all but two subjects—and even in those two, receive no less than a “G” (85 or above).
This quarter, 210 students, or approximately 43 percent of the total K–8 student body, accomplished the feat. To celebrate, Principal Deborah Ptak thought something special was in order: “This time, we wanted to reward the kids in a manner that was academically aligned, through experiential learning and community building—and honoring our community.”
With that in mind, the school’s student teachers, including School of Education MAT candidates Paul Veracka and Carly Voeller, organized an entire day of festivities to engage high-achievers from kindergarten to middle school.
Honorees first received their academic awards in a morning ceremony attended by parents. “We had a ton of kids being honored today,” said Tameka Suber. “I’m afraid we went past our time!”
The students didn’t have to wait long for the real fun to start, however. William Emerson, also known as Abu the Flutemaker, kicked things off, captivating the kids with his innovative handmade instruments—including a saxophone constructed of recycled PVC pipe and a steel drum hammered from an old potted plant basin. The demonstration and performance soon had all students, and their teachers, up on their feet.
For the rest of the day, students rotated by class through almost every one of the school’s community spaces to enjoy a day of wide-ranging activities. In the courtyard, kids engaged in a number of games that demanded both challenge and cooperation. In the lobby of the Weinberg Early Childhood Center, younger students created their own unique patterns to be assembled into a community artwork. In the library, older students rehearsed a dramatic reading to commemorate the Montgomery bus boycott, one of the seminal events of America’s civil rights movement. In the Family Resource Center, students worked on art and writing projects and creating their own dance routines.
“Our teachers are very good at helping kids intrinsically own their learning,” said Ptak, near the end of the big event. “This day is an important part of reinforcing that.”
Outside the window, a peal of laughter erupted from the fourth graders who had joined hands and were, one-by-one, trying to wriggle through a hula hoop without breaking contact.
“And as you can see,” Ptak continued, “they’re really enjoying it.”