Romey Pittman’s last day at Annapolis High School was Wednesday. She packed up after four years of teaching U.S. history and headed for the door one final time.
While teaching at one of Maryland’s most diverse, complicated schools, Pittman proved herself a mentor for teachers and students. But that last drive from the school parking lot onto Riva Road wasn’t the end of her 30 years in education.
Pittman came to Annapolis High with a purpose, to see if her ideas about education connected with the reality of teaching in public schools today. She couldn’t have foreseen a pandemic-driven remote learning experiment or the freefall in test scores that followed, the shortage of teachers or the war of values that combines real parental worries and faux political posturing.
She knew Annapolis High offered a window into education, a place where students soaring in rigorous academic programs walk alongside students mired in the “opportunity gap.”
What she saw convinced her that Annapolis High — but more importantly, American education as a whole — isn’t working for many kids. As much as she loves the place and the people she’s leaving behind, she wants to lead a push for innovation.
“The best way I can describe it is I feel like kids are sort of calling BS on school in a pretty massive way,” Pittman said. “And we’re not really recognizing it. … It’s really something that asks us to rethink what we’re doing.”
So that ending last week was really a beginning. Pittman has a plan.
In the fall of 2024, she hopes to welcome roughly 250 students to the New Village Academy — the first charter school to open in Annapolis since KIPP Academy closed more than 15 years ago. Her plan is to renovate a 100-year-old system that now rewards sitting in classrooms through the use of internships, apprenticeships and mentoring.
“If we can acknowledge work that students are doing and base our credits on where kids know how to do something, it both holds the traditional classes accountable for actually producing results — which is not always happening right now — and it allows students alternative ways to earn credit. So that frees up students to be able to do a lot more, a lot of other things besides sitting in a classroom,” she said.
The New Village proposal offers multiple ways to graduate. All students would clock 150 hours in internships every academic year to build workplace skills. Some would work toward a degree at Anne Arundel Community College, while others would take part in 2,000-hour apprenticeships with potential employers.
And Pittman is working on state approval to let students design unique career and technical education programs, creating pathways to jobs not offered at county vocational schools.
“There would be a set of structures around it, but essentially the student would be designing their own training program,” she said.
Pittman isn’t alone in seeing a need for change. The impact of COVID, the teacher shortage, low test scores and — unique to Maryland — extra funding and new goals within the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, are all pushing education toward something different.
“Look, even without Blueprint, coming out of COVID we’re in a period when most people who are thinking seriously about education at all are thinking we need some innovation,” said Joanna Tobin, president of the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.
If the Pittman name sounds familiar, it should. Her brother is County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat who was reelected last year. While they’ve talked about her project as a brother and sister who live on the same family farm normally might, she hasn’t asked for his support as the leader of county government.
“He’s been very careful not to get involved, which is actually kind of a pain in the butt because if he weren’t my brother, I would be going and asking,” she said.
What she has done is seek support from the city of Annapolis, where she expects to draw her students. The mayor and City Council are mostly passive bystanders in the school district. Anne Arundel County Public Schools gets its local funding from the county government and operates under an elected board and an appointed superintendent.
“There is a need, no doubt,” said Alderwoman Sheila Finlayson, a retired teachers union leader.
She supports the plan, even if she has reservations about charter schools siphoning funding from public schools or sometimes working outside a union agreement.
Maryland is sometimes described as hostile toward charter schools, but that might be as much about politics as the facts. What is true is that local school boards hold the power to approve and oversee charter schools in Maryland. Anne Arundel has four, although the ones in Annapolis and Laurel are “contract” schools created to reduce overcrowding.
Annapolis High serves kids from across the county, and down the street. It is closely divided among white, Black and Latino students. They come from affluent homes — the school has both sailing and rowing clubs — while a large number of students, 60%, get free and reduced-price meals.
It is overcrowded, with 2,200 students, but has magnet programs that draw students from anywhere in the county.
Romy Pittman has surrounded herself with like-minded educators and supporters, including Eric Devito, chairman of Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., Cheryl Nkeba, an educator with more than 20 years in private schools, and County Council Chair Lisa Rodvien, who shifted from a full-time job at Annapolis to a part-time role so she could focus on her county work. They were with her Saturday at the Juneteenth festival in Annapolis, talking about the project with prospective parents.
And there are Annapolis High students who comprise an advisory panel, including Haley Waltner and Nakiyah Lewis. Both say they won’t be able to attend New Village, but that they would like to come back and mentor after graduation and college.
Pittman is using social media and in-person talks to reach families, particularly where there are students who have given up.
When I told Lewis that my oldest kid graduated from Annapolis High 10 years ago, she said the climate there is worse today.
“Kids aren’t interested in learning,” said Lewis, a Navy Junior ROTC student. “They don’t want to learn.”
In submitting her proposal, Pittman has to show the ability to meet all the same academic requirements of a standard public school, as well as having the financing to make it work, a viable location and a transportation plan. She is talking with Westfield Annapolis about space at the mall, and with the city about relying on its transit bus system.
The application is under review and being “scored” in various criteria, according to a school system spokesperson. Superintendent Mark Bedell will make a recommendation based on that review, probably at the Aug. 23 school board meeting. The board has 120 days from the time that Pittman submitted her application to say yes or no.
Because she is a professional educator, it’s not surprising to find buzzy language in Pittman’s plans for New Village Academy. Students will be “known,” “connected,” “empowered” and “accountable.”
But behind those notions are plans to build intellectual stamina, curiosity and goal orientation, and a network of support in school, home and at work.
“Success looks like kids leaving our school with a very clear sense of what they want and what they need to do to get there,” Pittman said.