Douglass High's decline is a troubling mystery

May 19, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

The moment I step into Frederick Douglass High School I am bombarded by inspirational messages: A mural in the foyer celebrates the African American journey from slavery to freedom. Pictures of civil rights leaders are everywhere. A poster just outside the school office carries the motto of the "new and improved" Frederick Douglass High: "Pride. Dignity and Excellence."

I am here because this West Baltimore school seems to offer a powerful metaphor illustrating black progress -- or the lack of it -- since the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down racial segregation in education.

When the court made its landmark ruling in the Brown decision on May 17, 1954, Frederick Douglass High School was one of two "black" public high schools in Baltimore. Some of this city's ,, most famous black citizens went here, including the late Thurgood Marshall, the Baltimore-born Supreme Court justice who, as a lawyer, had spearheaded the legal attack against racial segregation before the court.

The school also produced teachers, lawyers, nurses and bus drivers: The ordinary people at the heart of Baltimore's black community.

Forty years later, however, Douglass has been declared one of the worst schools in the state. Its students rank among the

lowest in the city on standardized test scores; and it has by far the highest dropout rate in Maryland. Douglass' problems made it one of two high schools threatened with state takeover earlier this year -- the educational equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

So something has happened since the Brown decision; something profoundly symbolic and deeply disturbing; something the visionaries who fought so hard to destroy the separate and unequal system of education did not foresee.

So I come here, 40 years and one day after the Supreme Court's ruling. I drink in the memorials to black achievement and the inspirational messages that surround me. I look at the students here, who seem like ordinary kids, not much different from those when I went to school. And I ask: "What in the world happened?"

Orrester Shaw Jr. seems uncomfortable with my question. He considers it. Starts to answer. Reconsiders. Mr. Shaw was made principal of Douglass two months ago, as part of the state-decreed shake-up at the school. We are in his office. On his wall are the ubiquitous inspirational messages. Also on the wall is Mr. Shaw's high school diploma: Douglass High School, Class of '66.

"First of all," he says, speaking carefully, "we need to be cognizant of the fact that there are other Thurgoods in our midst right here, right now. If we provide the proper learning environment and give them the vision, there is no telling how far they can go. We can no longer blame the home anymore. We have to do our job in spite of the home."

Mr. Shaw then notes that the Brown decision made it possible for prosperous black families to move to suburban communities with better schools. Indeed, Prince George's County recently supplanted the city as the Maryland jurisdiction sending the most black high school graduates to college. Blacks today are represented in virtually every profession.

"But [Douglass] kids," says Mr. Shaw, "don't see the same opportunities. They don't see the jobs. They have been left behind."

He starts to say that his school has become a "dumping ground" but quickly corrects himself. "No, that isn't true. That isn't fair to say at all," he says. He starts to say, too, that values have changed, that neither parents nor students seem to respect the value of an education the way they once did. But, he acknowledges that this is true of only a small percentage of families. But, the community surrounding Douglass is beset by drug abuse, crime, violence. Half of his student body receives public assistance. Life today is far more severe than before, he says.

Still, Mr. Shaw believes that definite steps can be taken: "The first thing I did when I arrived here was work to change the expectations. Expect more from our students and they will achieve more."

L "But how did our expectations get so low since 1954?" I ask.

Mr. Shaw considers this a long, long time. "I cannot answer that," he says at last.

Neither can I. It is the melancholy mystery of this anniversary.

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