A Baltimore School That Works Is Already Missed

June 09, 1991|By KATHY LALLY p

We are taking leave of Baltimore, saying goodbye to all of the conveniences and many of the comforts of American life to spend three years in the Soviet Union as correspondents for this newspaper. Among the things we expect to miss most is one of Baltimore's much-maligned public schools.

In more than seven years sharing a job covering education for The Sun, my husband, Will Englund, and I certainly did our share of the maligning -- with good reason. The city's schools do, indeed, miserably fail the great majority of Baltimore's children, who are served up an inferior education that gives them little chance of ever escaping the poverty and despair that assail them every day of their lives.

Yet, amid so much loss there is success. Some of the city's schools do manage to prevail against bureaucratic indifference -- antipathy even -- and the handicaps of sparse budgets and supplies. One of these is Roland Park Public School, No. 233, which our third-grader Kate attended since kindergarten. We will miss it terribly in Moscow, even though we have been assured the Anglo-American School there is outstanding. We're feeling this loss acutely even now, in California, where we have come for three months to study Russian.

Don't let the words "Roland Park" fool you. Throughout the school system and the city, many people assume Roland Park has some sort of privileged status -- more money, more teachers, special favors. Maybe they think that because Roland Park's students perform so much better than students at most (but not all) of the city's other schools -- so much so that it's become a prime recruiting ground for exclusive Eastern boarding schools.

In fact, the school gets only the average allocation, less than at schools where federal money is spent through Chapter I programs for the very poorest students. Roland Park certainly has its share of poverty-stricken children, too. About half of its students are poor enough to qualify for a free lunch.

But the reputation lives on, possibly because "Roland Park" sounds like "rich white" to many Baltimoreans. How wrong that ** is. While the neighborhood the elementary school serves is almost entirely white, Roland Park long ago abandoned its school. Most of the neighborhood's residents are too frightened of the city and its schools to give the public school a chance. Most of the children of Roland Park go to private schools, or families with children move to the county when the children approach age 5.

Even as the school was being abandoned or ignored or resented, it exchanged defeat for opportunity and created something special. A small group of neighborhood residents has always stuck with the school, but when it was threatened with closing because of low enrollment, the school was in effect opened to children throughout the city. In the process, it became a microcosm of the city.

It, like the city, is majority black. But the children of interracial marriages are comfortable at Roland Park, along with white children and Asian children and a small group of new immigrants who speak little English. They are comfortable together in a way they are comfortable almost nowhere else in the city.

Much of this easy mixing is due to a remarkable principal, Evelyn T. Beasley, who every morning stands at the door greeting children and parents to see that the day starts off properly. She never hesitates to force out a teacher who isn't right "for my babies" or to chastise a superior, be it mid-level bureaucrat or superintendent or mayor, who stands in her way. Much of the success is due, also, to the teachers and parents and students, who refuse to give up on good schooling.

I felt our loss of Roland Park most poignantly one evening as I --ed into the school's auditorium-cum-gymnasium, nearly late for school concert because I had to write a story about how the mayor, fed up with the school system and its leadership, had forced out the superintendent. The whole sorry tale was enough to make the most sanguine parent give up hope of ever seeing the school system set to rights.

Just then, the row of 25 tentative third graders took their places to play the violins they had taken up only a few months earlier. Parents throughout the room caught their breath as the bows, poised above the strings, awaited the signal. Then the glorious sawing and scratching began, and the and the exhilaration rose with every note. The room was filled with parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters from all over the city -- black and white, rich and poor, powerful and powerless.

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