When the bright, young faces of 9-year-olds file into her fourth-grade classroom at Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School in West Baltimore each day, Lynda B. Nusinov sees rows of hope and potential.
Ms. Nusinov has faith in Baltimore public school children, despite what she believes is an indifference by suburbanites to problems city students face before they step into classrooms.
She sympathizes with her students and says that the problems sometimes manifest themselves in disruptive or violent behavior that the city's school system doesn't have resources to address.
Ms. Nusinov says that state legislators and citizens can help address these problems by providing more money to city schools -- per-pupil spending in Baltimore is $5,182, compared with $7,377 in Montgomery County. She also wants people to appreciate the strife that city children face outside of school.
QUESTION: You've been teaching in city schools for nine years. Has your job become more difficult over that period?
ANSWER: Twenty years ago, teachers were charged with the responsibility of educating the children. Now we're charged with the responsibility of nurturing, providing social services, guidance services, providing the family structure for children in addition to educating them. We're seeing a change.
The structure of the neighborhoods is changing. The problems are getting more severe. Children are trying to cope with fears that adults couldn't cope with.
Q: How have these problems translated into behavior problems in the classroom?
A: You might have children who are more withdrawn.
Coping skills are something that you learn with maturing or through counseling. Baltimore City doesn't provide us with the money they need for counseling.
Q: What are some of the obstacles city children face?
A: They may be dealing with drug problems at home with a parent who is on drugs.
They may be dealing with a very normal family life but see people killed on the street in front of their house. I had a little boy tell me he had a nightmare because the night before, he couldn't walk into the house because there was blood all over the front steps and he had to walk in the back.
I don't know how I would deal with that as an adult. How does a 9-year-old cope?
Q: These conditions must make it very difficult for children to learn.
A: You can put in a back-to-basics curriculum. You can put in a Montessori curriculum. You can put in a Tesseract curriculum.
But if children come to school hungry, they can't learn.
If they saw their mother get beaten up the night before, they can't learn. If they're cold, and they don't have shoelaces, and their shoes keep falling off their feet, they can't learn.
You've got to take away the roadblocks. Then, you can see what curriculum works.
Q: There have been cases where teachers have been assaulted by students. I understand that you once had a student who brought weapons to school.
A: Last year, I had a child who brought in two butcher knives.
She came from a very dysfunctional family. She had been moved around from one place to another, and she was upset with life.
It wasn't a personal attack on me, but where else was she going to go to act out?
Q: What was she planning to do with the knives?
A: She had threatened some of the other children and said she was going to cut them if they didn't give her their cookies at lunch.
She said one knife was for them and one knife was for the teacher -- if the teacher told her to do something she didn't want to do.
Q: How can children who exhibit disruptive behavior be prevented from interfering with the education of their classmates?
A: I agree with [city school Superintendent Walter G.] Amprey on his no-disciplinary-removal policy.
If we put children out of the school, they're going to hang on the streets. Many times there's nobody home. So where is the child going?
Q: But wouldn't it be difficult to conduct a class if the child is not removed?
A: That's the rock and the hard place.
We need alternative situations. We need a smaller classroom situation for a child having difficulty.
As a teacher, I don't want him removed from school. This could be a very bright child with tremendous potential. Most of the time the severe behavior problems are those children. I would like to see them never removed.
Q: That seems awfully idealistic.
A: As a teacher, I am very idealistic, and I'm optimistic.
I know how much potential there is in our kids in Baltimore City. And I know our kids can do everything the kids in Montgomery County or Howard County can do. Given the same, level playing field, they would do as well if not surpass.
Q: Some substantial changes are needed to bring about a level playing field. How would you suggest that be done?
A: I truly believe the politicians need to come to the schools and meet the children. I think they need to see what happens.
It's very easy to read about it and then try to deal with numbers.
But when you start attaching faces and people to these things, all of a sudden, it's no longer the black-and-white issue.
Q: You cite the lack of resources. City schools often don't have full-time librarians, music teachers, gym teachers and other specialists. How does this hurt?
A: We have a nurse who shows up one day a week. If a child falls down and gets hurt, we have to call 911. That would be unconscionable in Howard County or Baltimore County.
Baltimore City children deserve more than this. The message the people are sending to children of Baltimore City is very different from all the rhetoric.