Lessons came hard for this inner-city program

MIKE BOWLER

January 05, 1992|By MIKE BOWLER

It was just another inner-city school dropout prevention program, financed by an insurance company, Prudential, and administered by a Columbia-based organization with a do-gooder name, the National Committee for Citizens in Education (NCCE).

"With and For Parents" operated for 3 1/2 years at Baltimore's Harlem Park Middle School. It received almost no publicity. And, if attendance rates and scores on achievement tests of the students in the program are compared with those of a control group, "With and For Parents" was at least a partial failure.

What saves it is a book -- "Helping Dreams Survive" -- a remarkable account of the effort written by Jocelyn A. Garlington, a young black Baltimorean who was with the program from its inception and its second and last director.

Ms. Garlington's book, just published, provides brilliant insights into the culture of inner-city education, a culture that is increasingly alien to middle-class people black and white. She paints vivid pictures of the West Baltimore school and its impoverished community. The pictures are stark and unsparing but consistently sensitive and understanding. Interspersed are entries from a journal Ms. Garlington kept throughout the experience (she is also a poet, and this shows in her prose), photographs and drawings by Baltimore artist Jerry Prettyman. (The book is published by the NCCE, which has moved its offices to Washington.)

"With and For Parents" set out in 1987 to encourage the parents of 156 sixth-graders to work with their children, become involved in school and with homework. The idea was that the increased parental support would translate to improved attendance and better achievement scores before the students moved on to senior high school last year.

From the beginning, though, the program encountered huge roadblocks. Inner-city parents, Ms. Garlington wrote, "have grown weary of being counted, categorized and characterized." Many families are harboring drug dealers or wage-earning adults who could make them ineligible for welfare. Many resent and fear the neighborhood school.

And for good reason. Most of the official correspondence poor black families receive from public institutions of any kind is negative. It usually means some kind of problem that requires immediate attention and, in most cases, some type of penalty for failing to respond.

Educators, most of whom don't live in the neighborhoods where they work, are notorious for condescending and insensitive attitudes. Harlem Park was no exception. On one of Ms. Garlington's visits to the school, she heard an announcement over the intercom that a girls' bathroom would be out of service for the rest of the day because a young man, as punishment for entering the lavatory illegally, was being locked in it.

"How would this affect his attitude toward school, and how would he be treated by his peers?" Ms. Garlington asked. "How would his parents react? Surely, it would be painful to know that your child had been made an object of laughter by the entire school."

Staff members of "With and For Parents" learned painful lessons as the program went along, and eventually they succeeded in establishing rapport with the vast majority of the parents they were trying to reach. (Holding "window conversations" from the street was one technique commonly employed.)

Ms. Garlington's book is a manual for other organizations and individuals wanting to gain the trust of inner-city people. Each chapter ends with a list of "lessons learned." For example: "Parents and even grandparents often appear to be much younger than their age. And some, in fact, are much younger than society's 'standards.' The younger parent needs to be respected and treated as a person who has authority and the ability to make the best choices for her child."

"Helping Dreams Survive" also explodes several myths and assumptions about inner-city life. In almost all families assumed to have virtually no significant male presence, for example, Ms. Garlington and her colleagues found "an influential male either living in the home or living outside the home but very closely connected" with it.

And West Baltimore is not home to scores of "welfare queens" -- able-bodied women producing child after child to stay on the public dole. In fact, Mr. Garlington wrote, many of the single mothers in Harlem Park work, some holding two or three jobs.

One of the most formidable of the myths shattered here is that inner-city parents don't care about the education of their children. In a community ravaged by economic collapse -- living conditions in Harlem Park, according to an afterword to "Helping Dreams Survive" by William Rioux, NCCE executive director, are "far worse than most people know or understand, even those who have worked in cities before" -- it is a wonder parents do as well by their children as they do.

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