Schmoke seeks ideas for helping schools

October 18, 1990|By Will Englund

If you've got a good idea about fixing the Baltimore schools, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday, he wants to hear about it.

From now on, he said, the mayor's office will be coordinating community groups and other city agencies that can play a role in improving the beleaguered schools.

And they will focus entirely on individual schools -- in large part bypassing the school system's central office on North Avenue.

After noting that good ideas tend to get lost at North Avenue amid the crush of other business, the mayor said, "I'm trying to give people who are interested in the schools another way to enter the system."

And he said he wants to make it clear that the schools must be receptive to outside help. Principals who resist community involvement should be evaluated accordingly, he said.

The mechanism for pursuing the mayor's plans was established yesterday at a meeting with people from 40 community groups. He told them he was setting up three committees, and persuaded everyone present to sign up for at least one. Those committees will deal with promoting community involvement, with business partnerships and with "principal assistance."

Moreover, he has established a "mayor's round table" of representatives from other city agencies that can pitch in when called upon. As an example, he mentioned the first day of school this year, when the transportation department provided street banners, public works helped with cleaning, and recreation and parks stepped in to mow grass that had been left untended.

In 1989, Superintendent Richard C. Hunter declared that community involvement in the schools must be handled by his office, but the mayor's actions yesterday -- coupled with the upcoming school decentralization plan that he has endorsed -- represent almost a reversal.

Delores Winston, head of Dr. Hunter's community mobilization office, attended yesterday's meeting and said she welcomed the mayor's involvement.

"It just means that everybody is coming together so we're not spinning our wheels and going in opposite directions," she said.

The mayor wants to use the committees to encourage programs like Aaron Dowdell's. He runs a literacy project for the Southeast Community Organization at two elementary schools, Tench Tilghman and Hampstead Hill. The program is aimed at students who are struggling -- but also provides reading and math classes for their parents, and day care for their younger siblings to try to ward off problems later.

One success the program has had, he said, is in overcoming the parents' fear and mistrust of schools based on their own unhappy experiences. Under the mayor's plan, the program could be expanded to many more schools if private support can be found, he said.

Diane James of the Maryland Conference of Social Concern said she was encouraged by yesterday's meeting. "Practically speaking, it's probably a real good idea. There's some real talent out there, and some schools that really need help."

But Ms. James and other participants said they were unsure how the committees would work, and how well they would be able to deal with the school system as a whole.

"This was really a first step," she said of the meeting, "but a nice step."

One worry she has is that the effort will "detract from the fact that we are going to get nowhere without better funding for education."

The mayor later said, "We've never said that parent and community involvement will make up for the disparities in spending."

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