Learning the ropes in Harlem Park

June 07, 1991|By Jocelyn Garlington

For three years, the National Committee for Citizens in Education worked to help 156 families whose children attended Harlem Park Middle School in West Baltimore. The program, "With and For Parents," was financed by the Prudential Foundation. In these excerpts from Network, the committee's newsletter, the director of "With and For Parents" reflects on the experience.

Ms. ------ always apologized for her home when I visited. I was thinking as she did so that nothing wrong with her home was her fault. Everything was orderly; beautiful plants and pictures of all seven children were nicely displayed.

We talked about the rotting front door and how impossible this made it for her to keep the place warm. Besides, she lived in a place where almost constant drug activity was virtually on her front steps. I told her she needed better security. She had not considered that. The next time I saw her she smiled and said, "I did what you told me to do. I got my door replaced. But the landlord raised my rent."

I could not stop thinking how unfair her landlord was. But I couldn't shake the guilt I felt, either.

Lining the streets in front of Harlem Park's miles of row houses are a few thin trees struggling to survive in small dirt squares carved in the concrete and covered with steel grates that trap trash and broken glass. Many of the houses have the traditional marble steps found all over Baltimore. Some are kept sparkling white in the tradition of generations of Baltimoreans. But all around is the pervasive feeling of abandonment. The houses, in various states of ill repair, seem unsuited to providing shelter.

Yet, families do live in these substandard, unhealthy places that offer minimal protection from the elements or crime. For many people in congested urban slums, these brick and mortar boxes are home, and the deprivation of comfort, privacy and security is a way of life.

Side by side with the row houses, some of which bear remnants of former pride of ownership (fragments of imported tiles in the foyers, elaborately carved eaves and stunning floor-to-ceiling windows which are shattered or boarded up), and the churches with which the neighborhood abounds is a proliferation of bars and liquor stores, the only thriving businesses in Harlem Park.

In fact, the Harlem Park Middle School and adjoining elementary school are flanked by liquor stores -- havens for kids hooking school or dropouts looking for a way to fill empty hours. It is disturbing and a bit ironic that a middle school which ranks among Baltimore's highest in daily absenteeism sits by helplessly while its kids slip quietly through the cracks, less than a stone's throw away. Closing these cracks through parent and community involvement was the goal of NCCE's "With and For Parents" project when we arrived in the summer of 1987.

In communities like Harlem Park, a certain level of suspicion and even resentment of new efforts prevails, especially when sponsored by out-of-community organizations, funded by private sources. Most, if not all, programs previously available there were perceived as the type that could be found in any public agency around town and were marked by bureaucratic rigidity and insensitivity to individuals . . .

We knew that in order to convince many parents to become meaningfully involved in their middle schoolers' education, we first had to be accepted by the families to the point were we could visit with them regularly and talk frankly about the important education issues that can profoundly affect a child's future. And we knew we would have to be patient. Education is extremely important in the African-American culture and tradition. Sadly, the quality of education for blacks has eroded to the point where it is difficult for families to see the direct correlation between education and a productive, fulfilling career . . .

Economics are a major factor; when paying the rent and putting food on the table are constant concerns, education understandably takes a back seat. Sometimes doors remain shut to avoid the bill collector, summons servers, social workers and others. Day-to-day survival is all-consuming. And many families object to opening up their homes in order to avoid one more situation in which they expect they will be viewed negatively. People who enter a low-income home for the first time and allow themselves to be appalled at what they see don't have to say a word; their body language says it all. Families feel it and are deeply affected by it.

Additionally, we found that once parents allowed us access to their homes, into their lives, we had to be prepared to be helpful in many ways, including assistance in getting emergency food, housing or other services. This was the only way to fully integrate education into family life.

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