The Birenbaums are focused on children and learning
Neighbors is an occasional series, profiles of people who live in Bolton Hill, showing the talent and diversity of those who live among us. Nominations are welcome by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Birenbaum household is all about education.
First, meet Milo, 6, a shiny new first grader at Midtown Academy and very happy to be there. Sonny, almost 4, still goes to Bolton Hill Nursery. Simon, the dad, is assistant principal at Benjamin Franklin High School in south Baltimore. Whitney, the mom, taught for 11 years at Midtown, the neighborhood public charter school. She now runs a non-profit literary organization for and led by middle and senior high students in the city.
They’re very busy but celebrate the relative normalcy of this school year after huddling at home like the rest of the world when COVID shut everything. Last year Whitney with other parents organized a pod of children including Milo to study and play in nearby parks and behind their townhouse on West Lafayette Avenue. The boys put on coats, masks and helmets and rode bikes and scooters relentlessly up and down the sidewalk in front of their home.
Simon, meanwhile, worked with staff and students at Benjamin Franklin High to hold things together emotionally and technically as they switched to on-line classes. “It’s a small (690 students in grades 9-12) community-centered school with a food bank, day care for students who are parents, and other services,” he said, for teens drawn from the low/lower-middle income industrial neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Curtis Bay. Many students fell behind and suffered disproportionately from not having in-person classes, he said.
While her children were safe and occupied, Whitney, working at home, tended to the business of CHARM: Voices of Baltimore Youth, a literary arts program founded by students and teachers “because students need to have their voices heard,” she said. They publish a literary magazine, poetry and anthologies and last year invited students to write online about their educational experience during the pandemic, a segment called This Is Not a Snow Day. That led to a hardback anthology, Our Voices Unmasked, writing and art produced by city youth during the pandemic.
“The kids are all over the map, more than 50 schools,” she said. She is the only full-time employee. She fundraises and runs the publishing side of the business and relies on teachers and volunteers. Students who write or work there are paid.
Whitney and Simon have been married nine years and are in their late thirties. They came to Baltimore with Teach for America, an organization that recruits and assigns college graduates to teach in disenfranchised communities and promote educational equity. She came from the University of North Carolina after growing up near the Outer Banks. As a girl she and her sister published and distributed a Sunday neighborhood newspaper. “Our neighbors told us it was better than the town paper,” she said.
Simon is from St. Louis and went to Rice University in Houston where he decided to give teaching a try. He arrived in Baltimore in 2005 and taught at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy in West Baltimore originally. At Benjamin Franklin last year, “I was meeting and working with the teachers and trying to hold it together and find ways to reach our students, trying to make it work. Now it’s about re-integrating the kids and helping those who never connected with the online classes. It feels different, but I think we’re making progress. The school offers real opportunities for the students. We want them to take advantage of them.”
Whitney landed in Bolton Hill shortly after arriving in Baltimore, first sharing an apartment on Park Avenue with other young women and then living in Fitzgerald apartments. She and Simon bought their home about eight years ago. She serves on the board of Bolton Hill Nursery and is still connected, through Milo and friends, to Midtown Academy. “I know Midtown. I love Midtown. Milo knows that they know him. We love it here,” she said.
– Bill Hamilton