LAST MONTH I attended the city's "All School Salute." I had a very special reason. Rosemunde Smith, principal of Federal Hill Elementary School, has started a mentoring program with Christ Lutheran Church, where I am a member. My very special reason is Cecilia Thompson, a charming fourth grader.
I was happily surprised by what I saw and learned about city schools. In fact, I was amazed. I met and talked with many teachers and principals, from grade school to high school. Their enthusiasm for teaching was obvious and abundant. I watched the awards ceremony in which the top student from each school was introduced. Each student's cheering section showed its support.
I visited many of the booths. I learned, for example, that Westside Elementary School has a "Students' Pledge" which is repeated each day after the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge reminds a student to "respect my teachers, other adults . . . classmates . . . have good work habits . . . always do my best . . ."
I learned about the "Futures" program, which is dedicated to keeping students in school until they graduate. Several booths were occupied by members of a mentoring program in partnership with the city school system. Representatives from Semmes, Bowen and Semmes, the law firm; the University of Maryland Medical System; IBM and SCM Chemicals provided one-on-one guidance and leadership to students regarding career selection and preparation.
The message to "Say No to Drugs" was everywhere -- on pencils, on buttons, on stickers, on cards, on magnets. I saw children proud of their school uniforms, which are universal in design but with each school's individual colors.
What I saw most of all is that the opportunity for education exists for the student who is able to apply herself or himself. So many things get in the way: drugs, crime, parental abuse, sexual abuse, sometimes all of the above. There is a lot wrong with the schools. Mayor Schmoke and the schools have taken a lot of bad press.
But there is a lot right about the schools, too. The mayor needs our help. The good teachers, principals and community and business mentors are trying, but they need our help. The students need our help. They need us to work harder to eliminate the drug problem. They need us to increase the number of business and personal mentor programs. In so many cases, all it means is being there to listen to the student's problems and make suggestions to solve them. In so many cases, all it means is being there to say, "I know you can do it. I believe in you."
Signe Lauren writes from Baltimore.