'Heroic' students inspire advocate of school plan

March 04, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Ruby Tate learned all she needed to know about Jay Gillen from her 13-year-old daughter, Shavon.

Dr. Gillen wants to open a small teacher-and-community-directed school for the neighborhoods surrounding Memorial Stadium.

He's enlisted Mrs. Tate and Shavon. At her mother's urging, the girl signed up for a creative writing course taught by Dr. Gillen last year during summer vacation.

"She's the sort of person you have to pull something out of," Mrs. Tate says. But quickly Shavon was writing prose and poetry. She was reading. She was visiting the Baltimore Museum of Art and writing about what she saw there.

She told a friend: "Don't tell my mother I'm enjoying this."

Then she was doing the telling herself.

"She just kept being interested," says Mrs. Tate.

Other youngsters need the attention of a teacher as committed Dr. Gillen, she says.

A 36-year-old father of three with a doctorate in comparative literature from the Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Gillen lives in the Waverly neighborhood.

His own experiences as an English teacher for a year at Walbrook High School and later at the school system's Harbor City Learning Center were among his motivations to push for an alternative school.

"It was extremely discouraging and dispiriting to see how poorly educated students were when they left school. The expectations for what counted as high school education for city kids was something much below what I ever imagined.

"You could ask graduating seniors to calculate 50 percent of 100 and they couldn't," he says.

But given the poverty that afflicted many of them, he says the students who graduate and those who teach them are heroes.

"The odds are so great. The school system and the way things are arranged lead to expectations that half the students won't graduate. The students who do stick it out are really doing what a lot of people think is impossible. So if they graduate without knowing as much as they should, they're still doing something wonderful."

Smaller schools, he predicts in his proposal to the city school system, will increase the likelihood of success in several ways.

"Parent nights in elementary schools are often quite well-attended, but when you get to middle school and high school, the involvement drops off.

"Some say it's because parents don't care, but I think it has a lot to do with transportation."

If parents have to take two buses to a meeting far from their own neighborhoods, they might "choose other priorities," he said.

He predicts that fighting associated with turf-conscious adolescents will diminish with smaller schools because most students will be on their own turf. With teachers checking on absentee students, truancy could be reduced. Urban students "are confronted with issues of survival every day," he says. In that regard, Dr. Gillen considers many of them heroic.

"My students [in Baltimore at Walbrook and Harbor City] have faced challenges I would have failed at. They walk down the street and they're confronted by drug dealers."

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