Book ties school reform to community

March 24, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

She gave birth to her first child at 17, failed the eighth and ninth grades, dropped out in the 10th, started collecting welfare and never stopped.

The single mother avoids visiting her son's Baltimore City elementary school. She never liked school much. She's busy taking care of her 18-month-old baby at home. She's embarrassed by a wardrobe consisting mainly of what she wears around the house.

Her story is a familiar one to some school officials, parents and community leaders in Baltimore -- and across America.

The story appears in "The School-Community Cookbook -- Recipes for Successful Projects in the Schools," a handbook put together and edited by Carl S. Hyman, the city school system's grants administrator. The 230-page handbook -- with sections by teachers, administrators, activists, clergy, corporate executives, merchants and others -- offers a wealth of practical tips on ways to revive inner-city schools by involving everyone.

The handbook, published as a national edition this year, costs $23.95, including postage and handling. Mr. Hyman has sold about 3,000 copies to educators nationwide, and the book has been reproduced on a U.S. Department of Education data base.

The certified city planner, who six years ago took over a grants office that now cajoles some $4 million a year from private sources for school-related programs, speaks with urgency about the need to look beyond North Avenue headquarters to revive schools.

As the schools go, he says, so go the neighborhoods, the city, the state -- ultimately, the nation itself.

He's at once hopeful about possibilities for the much-maligned district and deeply troubled by the proportion of citizens in Baltimore and elsewhere who have written off the city schools as beyond redemption.

"Yes, the schools are your problem. They're everybody's problem, and to simply abandon them is not going solve the problem," says Mr. Hyman, who still lives in the Northwest Baltimore community of Cheswolde where he grew up and attended city public schools.

"If you like your community, and you like the economic, social vitality of your community, you need to be involved in the public school because it's determining everything in that community. There's no escaping this. But it's just like anything else. If it doesn't affect people now, they're not going to worry about it. That's extremely angering."

Antidote is outrage

The antidote, in his view: Outrage, enough to replace despair with action, abandonment with a commitment to rebuilding schools on par with the obsession with topping the Russians academically in the 1960s' race for space.

He knows more money alone will not save the schools. Nor will the people inside the block-long white monolith on North Avenue that is school headquarters. Nor will principals and teachers.

Hence, his recipes for a revival effort involve everyone.

That means, for example, when the talk turns to the need for parental involvement -- as it often does -- nobody should forget the single welfare mother.

"To many, many of our parents and community people, schools do not represent an uplifting empowerment," says Mr. Hyman. "They represent contempt and animosity. They represent their own failure. So the school house -- the people, the building -- is a very threatening, unfriendly place."

The handbook suggests actively courting parents. Send them newsletters, assign homework that requires their participation, encourage them to volunteer in the school. Offer them training in parenting, teach them to read and write. Listen carefully to them, value their opinions and always avoid talking down to them.

But don't stop with parents. About 25 years ago, Mr. Hyman says, the schools' relationship with surrounding communities rarely extended beyond parents, teachers and children. No less than 60 percent of registered voters had children in schools in a city district with almost twice as many students as today's estimated 113,000. Everybody took it for granted that the city would do its job educating children, and for the most part, it did.

Today, only about a third of the city's voters have children in schools, and the proportion of elderly and single residents has grown markedly.

The proliferation of drugs, violence, poverty and single-parent households at a time of ever-shrinking budgets all contributed to the decline of schools in Baltimore and in big cities across the country.

At the same time, white flight, black middle-class flight and the accompanying exodus from the schools diminished commitment to public education in the city to all-time lows during some of the district's darkest hours.

Practical advice

The book offers simple, practical prescriptions designed to help schools take advantage of largely untapped potential allies while bridging the gap between school and surrounding communities.

There's jargon-free advice on everything from grant proposals and other fund-raising efforts to getting college interns into a school to work.

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