Some don't know their names or ABCs while others can't tell red from blue.
Few ever heard of "Goodnight Moon," the bedtime book.
Others breathed lead paint dust in rundown rowhouses. Some are the first crack babies to put on a backpack.
These are the children who come to Steuart Hill Elementary School to begin their education. By all measures, they are among the most difficult kids to teach, the kind of inner-city youngsters who fail again and again.
But this is a success story.
Three years ago, Steuart Hill reading scores were the lowest among Baltimore's 122 elementary schools. One in six children didn't come to school. Dealers hawked drugs on a playground covered with broken glass. Drunken fathers lingered in the hallways. Parents slapped children in the classroom; teachers sometimes whacked them with rulers.
Today, the kids at Steuart Hill read as well as or better than most youngsters their age in city schools. Nearly 94 percent attend school regularly. Children frolic outside on the new, bright-yellow slides and jungle gyms. Some parents volunteer in classrooms while others study for their GEDs in the school basement.
This is a story about the creative use of money -- though not in lavish amounts -- to give children a good foundation for their risky climb through the Baltimore school system.
It is a story about the hopes and dreams of innocent children.
It is a story about Goldye Sanders, a demanding principal with asimple yet unwavering vision -- that teachers will teach and children will learn.
Seven-year-old Torrance sits on the bench outside Ms. Sanders' office. A constant troublemaker, he has landed at the office again for hitting a classmate.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" Ms. Sanders asks.
"My mommy went away one day. I went to live with my aunt," he begins, sobbing. "I didn't come to kindergarten much. I want my mommy."
"Do you know where she is?" Ms. Sanders asks quietly.
"She's in jail. I want my mommy back."
"I understand that you want your Mommy, Torrance," she says."But that's no reason to fight in school. Do you understand, Torrance? You cannot fight in school. Do you understand?"
Torrance nods, still sobbing.
"Do you want to write your mommy a letter?" she asks, touching him gently on the shoulder. "Would that make you feel better?"
He takes a piece of notebook paper, sits at the conference table and slowly begins to print.
"Dear Mommy. I . . ." and he stops. "Is 'I' upper case?" he asks, his eyes wide. Then he offers this:
"My mommy said if someone hit me first, I'm supposed to hit them back."
"I wish . . ." he continues the letter, sounding out the "W".
L "I wish you come home this Friday. Love, Torrance. xoxoxox"
Ms. Sanders walks outside her office. Another child is waiting on the bench.
A big school, a big task
Goldye Sanders didn't want to come to Steuart Hill.
She'd spent three years at Morrell Park Elementary, a tiny school in West Baltimore where children achieved and parents were motivated. But in 1989, school headquarters wanted Ms. Sanders to tackle a larger school.
Located on the edge of historic Union Square in West Baltimore, just a mile west of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Steuart Hill is a three-story, brick and concrete building that stretches the entire block of Gilmor Street between Lombard and Hollins. It is one of five schools serving only pre-kindergarten through second grade children.
More than 85 percent of Steuart Hill's students qualify for free breakfast and lunch. In contrast, most of the children who live across the street in the spacious renovated rowhouses facing Union Square attend private or parochial schools -- as do one in six children who live in Baltimore.
In the heyday of classrooms with no walls, Steuart Hill was hailed as one of the city's first "open space" schools. But the educational wonder of the 1970s has become an albatross for teachers who struggle with easily distracted children. Voices intermingle across classrooms separated only by low bookshelves. With more than 600 pupils, Steuart Hill was twice the size of Morrell Park Elementary -- with 10 times the problems.
When Goldye Sanders arrived, layers of dirt covered the floors; dingy beige walls darkened hallways. Second-graders still couldn't read first-grade primers, and first-graders struggled with kindergarten books.
Behavior problems such as Torrance's were so common that 6-and 7-year-old children were routinely removed from school.
"I came in tears"
"I came in tears," Ms. Sanders recalls.
In addition, nearly half the teachers had asked to be transferred from Steuart Hill the year before, leaving the school with 24 new, inexperienced teachers.
"It had a reputation as a place you didn't want to be assigned," recalls Pat Sheafor, speech pathologist at Steuart Hill since 1984.
But there was hope.