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Ex-Center Grove standout making a difference with inner-city teens

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The name of the workplace where Emily Butler strives every day to make a difference is somewhat misleading.

Forest Park High School offers neither a forest nor a park. It is a place of learning for about 630 students — 98 percent of whom are black — located in the Liberty Heights section of Baltimore’s inner city.

Its assistant principal is the person who as a high school freshman helped Center Grove capture the 1996 girls state basketball championship.

It all seems so long ago to Butler, the former 5-foot-8 shooting guard who remains No. 3 on the Trojans’ all-time scoring list, having contributed 1,124 points from 1995-99.

So long ago she scored a team-high 15 points in the 55-44 victory against Valparaiso in the championship game at Market Square Arena. So long ago Butler became Center Grove’s fifth and most recent player to be named an Indiana All-Star.

“Winning it all is such a great memory, and a lot of us from that team are still really good friends,” Butler said. “Venus (Harmeyer) and Jenny (Martin) are two of my best friends along with two girls from my class (Jenny Mann and Whitney Brown). Those teams were really close.

“(Winning state) definitely feels like a long time ago. We worked so hard to get there. I just wanted to make varsity because at that time Center Grove didn’t have a track record of freshmen making varsity.”

Butler’s ability to blend with older teammates and their accepting of her went a long way toward the Trojans reaching the summit.

Starting alongside junior point guard Harmeyer and 5-foot-8 swingman Martin, along with front-liners Liz Stansberry and Lisa Eckart, Butler lived her athletics dream earlier than most.

The following season the Trojans advanced to the Southport Semistate before losing to Perry Meridian in a semifinal 62-61. Overall, the program was 81-16 in Butler’s four varsity seasons.

Injured ‘Cat

Pursued by Indiana University, Western Kentucky, George Washington and others, Butler aspired to earn a degree at Northwestern University while playing for its women’s basketball team.

She started 24 of 28 games as a freshman in 1999-2000, averaging 6.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Butler would fare better as a sophomore with a 12.7 scoring average, her best performance a 26-point, seven-rebound game against Michigan State.

On pace to potentially be named All-Big Ten her final two seasons, Butler tore cartilage in her right knee four games into her junior season (2001-02). She played in 17 games as a senior, started six times and averaged 8.4 minutes of playing time.

After producing a total of 519 points her first two seasons in Evanston, Butler would score only 75 points during her junior and senior seasons combined.

Now 33, she has had five surgeries on her right knee and one on her left.

“I really wanted to play overseas after college,” Butler said. “I had worked really hard in the offseason before my junior season, but the injury allowed me to focus a lot more on school. Honestly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without that injury.”

Impact player

Long removed from setting screens and releasing 3-pointers, Butler today gains immense satisfaction helping maximize the educational potential of inner-city teenagers.

Forest Park, a school in which 60 percent of the students are under foster care, has adopted the following as its motto: Enter to learn. Go forth to serve.

Butler didn’t go there, though she did make a conscious decision to roll up her sleeves and contribute in areas others in her profession might prefer to avoid.

“This is my second year as an administrator and my 11th year in urban education,” Butler said, adding there might be two or three white students walking the Forest Park hallways. “Once you learn about the achievement gap, it becomes pretty compelling to want to do something about it.

“I’m really drawn to high schools where the most significant needs are. The hardest part of my job is seeing a child who is perfectly capable of doing anything having limits put on them.”

Butler’s annual mission is to get as many students as possible qualified for commencement exercises in the spring. To earn the diploma that might expand one’s employment boundaries en route to a better life.

She’s had her share of success stories as well as some disappointments.

Nearly every graduation ceremony is, as Butler puts it, bittersweet.

Overall, she loves what she does and plans to remain a viable cog in the Baltimore City Public Schools machine.

“With this job it can be a really bad day, and there’s always something funny,” Butler said, laughing. “Teenagers are a really unique breed.”

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