Educator preaches message of hope Teachers to get the word at institute

August 19, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

To salvage the inner cities, to rescue the schools, to save much of a generation of poor urban blacks, Jeffrey Howard says, start by sending the teachers back to school.

Dr. Howard, a Harvard-educated social psychologist whose theories have won over Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, offers a decidedly simple prescription he'll soon spread to hundreds of Baltimore teachers:

Stop telling children intelligence is a God-given gift and that you have it or you don't. Stop creating a caste system by writing off most young children as "dummies" before they even finish elementary school. Make yourself believe in the children and tell them this: "Smart is not just something that you are; smart is something you can get."

This fall, all the employees of 18 city schools -- from the principal to the janitor and, most important, the teachers -- will hear that message again and again when they receive training from Dr. Howard's nonprofit Efficacy Institute, based in Lexington, Mass.

The teachers and other school employees will attend four intensive daylong training sessions, two initially, then two follow-up training days a month later. School officials have yet to decide which schools will receive the training but plan to do so within two weeks.

Also, teams of principals and teachers from the remainder of Baltimore's 177 public schools will attend training sessions in hopes that they'll take Efficacy's gospel of building self-esteem back to their schools.

While the final price tag remains uncertain, Dr. Amprey said he expects a year of Efficacy training to run $300,000 to $400,000, with some of that likely to come from federal and state programs for poor school children.

Yesterday, Dr. Howard, a tall, slender father of four who wears a beard and wire-rim glasses and specializes in intellectual development, preached his sermon to the converted -- more than 600 city school administrators gathered at Southwestern High school.

The training method's biggest cheerleader, Dr. Amprey, who's beginning his third school year at the helm at North Avenue headquarters, views Dr. Howard as a long-distance mentor who offers hope to increasingly desperate city school systems.

The superintendent said he heard about Efficacy's work while attending an education conference in Washington about a year ago. The nonprofit institute now provides training to teachers in 60 school districts nationwide, including some of America's most troubled ones such as New York, Los Angeles and Detroit.

An instant convert, Dr. Amprey quickly contacted Dr. Howard.

"He recognizes that we have to change our belief system, to change how we see intelligence, as something that you can get if you work for it," Dr. Amprey said.

To that end, Dr. Amprey says he wants much less "tracking" of students as gifted or slow, less reliance on low grades and red pen ink and fewer suspensions. Too many teachers in too many schools, he says, view many children in their classes as unintelligent and impossible to educate. He says the prophecy fulfills itself, and he hopes the workshops, lectures and exercises Efficacy provides change attitudes throughout the district.

At the training sessions, the city teachers will grapple with some of the most pressing problems confronting urban education nationwide: nearly 64 percent of black children born out of wedlock, 40 percent of black girls pregnant before 18, dropout rates exceeding 50 percent in many urban school systems, 40 percent of black families living on public assistance.

Dr. Howard lays much of the blame squarely on teachers, school boards, school administrators, parents.

"The schools are absolutely a mess," the soft-spoken 45-year-old said before yesterday's "Superintendent's Administrative Academy." "They need to be reinvented but there's no way to do that with the current concept of education. School boards aren't focused on what's best for the child. They're focused on politics and internal struggles and what's best for adults."

The real challenge, he says, lies in changing teachers' attitudes, in raising their expectations of kids, in becoming dealers in hope amid so much hopelessness. Efficacy's training works, he says, pointing to improved standardized test scores and attendance in Detroit, California and elsewhere.

How many of the teachers, he asks, really believe that before graduating from high school every child in Baltimore public schools can master calculus, become fluent in a second language, write a literate, 25-page essay on any topic?

Dr. Howard not only believes it's possible -- one look at the Japanese school system should be enough proof, he says -- but insists the city should expect and demand it.

"Decide to educate your kids," he says, "or shoot them now because they're dead already. They'll spend a life on the streets. We can't allow that to happen. It's life and death now."

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