Douglass group fights takeover

February 04, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Frederick Douglass High alumni, teachers, parents and students last night denounced a possible state takeover of the West Baltimore school as a thinly veiled attempt to place it in private hands.

Calling itself "SOS Douglass," a newly formed group representing the school made its case against the new state measure at last night's school board meeting.

"We see this as a way of the state to privatize our schools and sell them to the highest bidder," Douglass teacher Clarice Herbert said, speaking for the group. "When that happens, profit becomes the main focus and not our children."

Ms. Herbert and other critics also charged that the city school system has shut them out of planning ways to avert the possible state takeover by coming up with an improvement plan acceptable to the state superintendent of schools.

Baltimore Superintendent Walter G. Amprey told the group that alumni, teachers, parents and others will be involved in efforts to reverse Douglass' decline.

"This is not going to be an easy undertaking, but we're going to take it on," he said.

While not ruling out the possibility of turning either Patterson High School -- the other city school targeted for a state takeover -- or Douglass over to private operators, Dr. Amprey added: "There will be no deliberate plans to privatize anything. There's no deliberate plan to change anything, to close anything down."

The Douglass group, which also includes area clergy, was formed about two weeks after state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick identified Douglass and Patterson for possible state takeover. The Baltimore Teachers Union and the Maryland State Teachers Association oppose the state takeover plan.

Dr. Grasmick's announcement marked the state's first step under a new measure intended to rescue "academically bankrupt" schools, based on continuously worsening attendance, dropout rates and standardized test scores. No other Maryland schools will be targeted this year, she said.

The measure, approved in November by the state Board of Education, allows the board to force changes in principals or other staff at failing schools, rewrite curricula, order revisions in teaching methods or turn them over to private operators or universities.

City school officials have until April 1 to send improvement plans for Douglass and Patterson to Dr. Grasmick. The state could proceed toward a takeover or other changes if she rejects the plans.

Douglass, the only Baltimore high school blacks could attend until 1940 and one of only two such schools until 1954, lists among its alumni many distinguished Baltimoreans. Among them: Thurgood Marshall, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice; Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the late civil rights leader; state public safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson; entertainer Cab Calloway; Rep. Kweisi Mfume and former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell.

But state officials said that Douglass, on Gwynns Falls Parkway opposite Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore, and Patterson, on Kane Street in East Baltimore, have declined steadily during the past several years and probably will not improve without the threat of state intervention.

Many schools throughout Maryland fall considerably shy of state standards. But the first takeover targets are two that Dr. Grasmick and other state education officials deemed most in need of outside help.

Douglass ranks among Maryland's lowest schools in the proportion of students passing functional reading, math, writing and citizenship tests. Only 52 percent of its students passed all the tests by 11th grade, compared with a statewide average of 93 percent. More than 38 percent of all students dropped out during the last school year, compared with a statewide average of 5.2 percent, and the daily attendance is about 70 percent, compared with a statewide average exceeding 90 percent in high schools.

The state has broad powers to attack problem schools. For example, state funds could be withheld from local school systems that refuse to comply with state takeover orders.

The state began its intervention this year with high schools and will broaden the effort to elementary and middle schools next year. Starting in 1995, elementary and middle schools will be evaluated on attendance and on how well students perform on standardized tests. The tests, given in third, fifth and eighth grades, are intended to measure the students' use of classroom lessons.

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