State’s Poorest School Finds Success: “We have the best kids”

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Every school faces challenges in educating its students, both inside and outside the classroom. But it’s how they handle those challenges that sets them apart.

That’s why when Project Baltimore heard about what was happening at Salem Avenue Elementary in Hagerstown, we knew it was a story that had to be told.

We visited the school on picture day, when all 750 students lined up to be photographed. In each of their faces, their principal sees potential.

“We expect all kids to be able to do well. Period,” says Principal Thomas Garner.

In his 15 years at Salem Avenue Elementary, Garner has learned to set his expectations high and his threshold for excuses, low.

“As a principal, my job can't be to let the outside forces control what happens within our building,” he says.

Those forces make this the poorest school in Maryland. According to Federal data, 100 percent of the students at Salem Avenue live in poverty.

“We're completely aware of it. It’s our environment,” Garner says. “My job is to show empathy, to be empathetic from where you're coming from, but my job is also to push you up.”

Hagerstown is a blue-collar town of some 40,000 people. It has a higher poverty rate than Baltimore City. Its small-town charm is now overshadowed by a major public health crisis. The city sits at the intersection of Interstates 70 and 81, known as heroin highway.

“We're dealing with kids that sometimes are seeing a lot of trauma at home. And sometimes they're doing things that they are actually helping bring their parents back, maybe in the middle of the night, they're delivering Narcan to bring their own parent back,” Garner says.

As Principal, Garner has seen the impact on his school. In a few years, it went from 64 percent poverty to now 100 percent. Every student at Salem receives free breakfast and lunch, often their only meals in a day.

“You can't really walk in someone's shoes until you've kind of walked in their shoes,” Garner says.

So, he did. Six years ago, Garner noticed students were struggling and parents weren’t getting involved. The day before school started, he passed out t-shirts and maps to his staff. They spread out, visiting every student’s home to meet their families and see how they live. They called it “the blitz.”

“A lot of them don't have anything. I mean I have had kids with no electricity, with no running water, and that's common,” says Tyler Newcomer, a math teacher at Salem, who was on that first blitz and every year since.

“It's tough. It's difficult to know that this is what our kids go home to,” Newcomer says.

Newcomer believes seeing where his students come from has made him a better teacher. He doesn’t give homework, because he’s seen what’s at home. But knowing his students have little, doesn’t mean he expects less.

“We have very high expectations, and it starts with expecting our kids and teaching them that they can do it,” Newcomer says.

Salem Avenue is a Title One school, meaning it gets extra federal funding to help low-income students. Maryland has about 400 of them. At Salem, any extra money goes towards books, which now-a-days may be rare. But Garner says it’s important and has helped set his school apart.

Last year, the 5th grade class – where every student lives in poverty - scored higher on state testing than the Maryland average. The other grades weren’t far behind.

“I don't want there to be reasons why kids can't be successful,” Garner says. “Because it's too easy to say, ‘oh this is happening to this person, this happened last night.’”

It hasn’t been easy for the faces behind those test scores. The students who worked for it remind us that an education can change a life.

“The kids don't know that they're in the poorest school in the State of Maryland,” Newcomer says. “I mean, and that's out of their control. We love our kids. We have the best kids.”

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