Fast times at Coleridge-Taylor Elementary

Forum Extra

December 04, 1990|By Magdalene B. Fennell

MARK BOMSTER'S article, "The principal is diving right into the future" (Evening Sun, Oct. 29) was bittersweet to alumni of the Samuel Coleridge-Tayor Elementary School.

It was sweet to learn that the school is still alive at its original location on West Preston Street; bitter to hear that it is now "a combat zone." The neighborhood around it was always poor, but we who attended the school in the late '30s got a first-class education.

In that long ago, Samuel Coleridge-TayMagdaleneB. Fennelllor was called a platoon school and administered much like the junior highs of recent times. Our homeroom teachers taught us reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, but we left them each morning or afternoon and went to others for science and history. We also took music, art, gym and a subject called "auditorium," where we were taught debate, public speaking, stage presence and audience behavior. Gladys Wallace Turnage, our history and auditorium instructor, was the best teacher I ever had. So much of what she taught us remains with me today.

Television was in its infancy, and she took us somewhere downtown where we performed on stage and saw ourselves on a television screen.

Our music teacher acquainted us with the family of musical instruments, the great Negro singers of the day (Anderson, Hayes, and Robeson), and all three verses of the Negro Anthem, "Lift Every Voice," by James and Rosamond Johnson. She shared with us biographical information about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and played excerpts from his most famous oratorio, "Song of Hiawatha."

Our science teacher made our discussion of tropical fruits more meaningful by bringing in dates and pineapples for us to taste. Our physical education teachers presided over a fully equipped gymnasium with locker rooms and showers behind it. One of those teachers, Mattie White Ashton, recently celebrated her 100th birthday and was featured by Willard Scott on "The Today Show." She required us to dress for every gym class, keep our suits and sneakers clean, and shower before dressing again in regular school clothes.

Every Wednesday a local bank set up shop in the school. Homeroom teachers serving as tellers taught us the value of saving, let us assist with transactions and encouraged us to make weekly deposits. The school also had an occupational division where, in addition to the "meat and potatoes" subjects, students took cooking, sewing, wood, metal and other practical arts.

When we left Samuel Coleridge-Taylor more than 50 years ago, it was one of Baltimore's finest schools. What factors conspired to provoke its downward spiral? Probably the same ones that have left schools all across the country in disarray -- poor maintenance, insufficient funds, social promotions, ill-conceived experimentation, apathetic parents, unmotivated students, sloppy supervision, few books and fewer supplies, mediocre teachers and whatever else one wants to throw into the mess.

Is it possible to get a quality education in an inner-city school in the '90s, as it was in the '30s? It's possible provided the teachers are like the ones we had 50 years ago. The skills, attitudes, values, appreciations and understandings they instilled in us continue to exert a positive influence in my life. Why? Because the teachers were competent, committed and caring. They expected us to achieve, and we did. They made the difference.

Principal Deborah Wortham is headed in the right direction by demanding "a high level of commitment" from the teachers. If her philosophy of lofty expectations and abundant work takes hold, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor will be as sensational in 1996 as it was in 1936.

Magdalene B. Fennell writes from Baltimore.

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