Sex, crime and boredom keep youths from classes

November 15, 1991|By Ginger Thompson

There are no mirrors in many of the girls' bathrooms at Northwestern High School. Yet when 17-year-old Heather Kinlein walks into one, she sees reflections of herself when she was younger -- freshman girls skipping class.

A few years ago, she was one of the staggering number of Baltimore high school students who miss more than a month of school each year. She was expelled, had a baby and struggled to persuade school administrators to let her back in school. She will graduate this school year.

"I just didn't see the importance of going to school," she said. "Sometimes I would come in the morning but then ditch classes I didn't like and sit in the bathroom."

She doesn't share her story with the younger girls she sees lounging on the bathroom windowsills. But before leaving she says, "There are some people around here who are going to be underclassmen for a long time."

"They just give me dirty looks," she said.

Truancy is one of the schools' most stubborn problems. Last year, 18.5 percent of the city's 108,000 students missed more than 36 days of school. Close to 60 percent of Northwestern High School's students missed more than 20 days last year. Their reasons were varied.

"Sex," said Duane Evans, a 17-year-old sophomore at Northwestern. "I missed a lot of school because I was hanging out with this girl who stayed home all the time. So I stayed home with her."

Duane said that when he wasn't with his girlfriend he was with drug dealers who enticed him with cars and money. Eventually, he said, he was arrested for assault and sent to a juvenile detention center in West Virginia.

"See, here I am with the fellows," Duane said, pulling out a Polaroid snapshot from the front pocket of his overalls. "I missed a lot of school last year because I was locked up."

Angela Harcum, a 14-year-old freshman at Northwestern, said more students would go to school if teachers made classes more interesting. "Sometimes the teachers just lecture, or they hand out a work sheet, but they don't really talk to us," she said. "And then, if you don't make good grades, they look down on you. Who wants to come to a place like that?"

Although many students skip school during personal crises, Diana Boyd, a Western High School senior, sees her all-girl school as a refuge.

"I was thinking about staying home when my dad went into a mental hospital," said the captain of Western's swimming team. "But then I thought: If I come to school, maybe someone would say something to make me feel better."

Thetius Cotton, another Western senior, has no desire to cut school. She aims for perfect attendance.

"I know people in my family who haven't succeeded, and I want to succeed," she said.

Students such as Thetius inspire teachers.

Gregory Mank, an English teacher at Northwestern, uses his theater training to bring life to Shakespeare in hopes that his students will enjoy learning and come back.

He prefers playing to a full house. It is "demoralizing" to come into a half-empty classroom, he said, but "as long as somebody's here, somebody wants to learn, then I feel I can brave it out for those few souls."

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