Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School in Baltimore stands like a fortress opposite the McCullough Homes housing project. Its locked steel doors insulate the 550 blue-and-gold uniformed students from the problems outside.
Once inside School 122, youngsters get a daily dose of self-esteem from Principal Deborah Wortham. Her morning message, broadcast to students and teachers over the intercom: "You are sensational."
"When you walk into this building, you feel you're in a country club. That's the mind-set; that's the feeling," says Wortham, displaying a button that reads, "Sensational Staff -- #122."
What she doesn't tell students is that Baltimore City spends far less to educate them than the surrounding counties spend on their youngsters, that the city can't afford expert resource teachers, or even a full-time librarian.
"I think we have learned to instruct on a shoestring," she says.
Baltimore educators long for the day when they can turn in their shoestrings and match wealthier school districts teacher for teacher, book for book, computer for computer -- something they had hoped the state's Action Plan for Educational Excellence (APEX) would do.
But they may have to wait longer. The APEX program is likely to be a victim of the recession and the state's most serious budget crisis ever.
Educators and lawmakers saw APEX as a solution to the wide disparity in per-pupil spending between wealthy and poor school districts, one that could help poor districts reduce the size of classes and pay for books and additional teachers.
Enacted in 1987, the APEX law requires the state to pay an increasing share of education expenses starting in fiscal 1993, which begins next July 1. APEX funds are targeted for teachers' salaries and instructional materials, as opposed to transportation and overhead costs such as teachers' pensions or Social Security payments.
More important to systems like Baltimore's, APEX funds are "equalized," which means that poorer jurisdictions get proportionately more than wealthier ones.
Under APEX guidelines, the state contributed $947 million to local education this year. But to meet APEX requirements next year, when the law officially takes effect, the state would have to add $180 million to reach its $1.127 billion goal.
Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-City, vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said that would be highly unlikely without a tax increase, and school officials now worry that the APEX plan may be repealed or scaled down during the 1992 legislative session.
The state already has trimmed nearly $450 million from its current budget and faces an additional $175 million in cuts before the end of the fiscal year. On top of that, the deficit for fiscal 1993 is estimated at $700 million to $800 million unless spending is drastically reduced or the legislature increases taxes.
Baltimore, which has the bulk of the state's low-income residents and 111,600 public school students, would benefit the most from APEX, with $214.8 million next year.
By way of contrast, Baltimore County, with only 20 percent fewer students but a much stronger tax base, would receive $104.4 million, less than half of the city's total.
Anne Arundel County would receive $91 million; Harford, $58.7 million, Howard, $35.9 million and Carroll, $39.4 million.
City school officials believed APEX was a good start in closing the gap between rich and poor districts.
There was a difference of $2,930 in per-pupil spending between the two extremes in fiscal 1990, the most recent year for which figures are available.
At the high end, Montgomery County spent $7,213 per pupil, while Caroline county was the lowest of the 24 school districts at $4,283, according to the State Department of Education.
Baltimore ranked 19th, at $4,683, while Howard County ranked second at $6,028.
Howard County has translated its resources into high performance on the state's annual "report card" for school districts, meeting satisfactory levels of performance in all but one one of 13 categories. Baltimore schools met only one of the 13 standards.
At Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in the city, Wortham is working short-handed, but vigorously, to make up that deficit.
She tries to give children in her outdated, 65-year-old building the same quality of education students receive at schools with more resources, such as Howard County's modern Deep Run Elementary School.
Deep Run, a year-old building with bright red bricks and colorful playground equipment outside and four-classroom pods inside, has just about everything Principal James Pope needs.
There's a computerized media center with enough books to meet state requirements for middle schools, early-intervention specialists for children from infants to preschool age, resource teachers for reading and speech and a guidance counselor.