Miracles at Maryland's Worst School

June 04, 1994|By MIKE BOWLER

The state Education Department has never called Patterson High School the worst in Maryland. Officials use polite language and euphemism to justify their ''reconstituting'' of the 1,650-student East Baltimore school and Douglass High in West Baltimore.

One could quibble. One could note that Douglass is a historically black school, while Patterson is the only zoned high school in Baltimore with a sizable number of white students. Pairing it with Douglass on the first state dishonor roll serves to deflect criticism that black schools are being targeted.

But let us not quibble. The school's vital statistics are dreadful. Its test scores, attendance and dropout rates more than qualify it for state interdiction. It doesn't help that Patterson's staff and students bear little of the blame for the school's long journey to mediocrity.

It began in the mid-'50s, when the city fathers located Patterson as far away as possible from the city's burgeoning black population. On the northeast corner of what was then City Hospitals, hard by I-95 and the city-county line, the school is a monument to poor planning and lousy architecture (though when it opened in 1957, Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. called it ''the finest school building to be found anywhere in the U.S.'').

When a school's neighborhood comprises factories, a municipal hospital and an interstate cloverleaf, it will have problems, especially if its design is prison nouveau. Students have to have wheels -- on a bus or car -- to get to the school. Patterson's slide was assured in the 1970s, when Dunbar High became a citywide ''magnet'' school and Patterson's zone was extended westward, almost to downtown.

For 20 years, Patterson's staff has tried to stuff some knowledge and maturity into Southeast Baltimore's worst cases, black and white: kids from broken homes or no homes at all, kids growing up in a world of violence and abuse and drugs, girl-mothers and their hit-and-run boyfriends.

Concurrent events at Patterson Wednesday morning were worth noting. In the library, representatives of the Hyde School in Bath, Maine, were meeting with a select group of students. Adult noses all over the school were out of joint. Hyde is reported to be the state and city choice to take over Patterson this fall, but it has no contract as yet, and here it was ''snooping around,'' as one teacher put it. A woman in the school office said she feared the Hyde program was ''cult-like.'' A teacher ridiculed a report that it teaches kids to climb ropes. ''That'll help their character!'' she scoffed.

Perhaps the Hyde delegation ought to have divided its time with another select group of students nearby. This was an end-of-year ceremony for Patterson's most troubled kids, kids who had been taken under the wings of the school's ''Breakthrough Team'' last fall, when all hell was breaking loose at Patterson, Douglass and elsewhere. Some of the students had dropped out. Others had been rounded up in ''hall sweeps.'' Some had been referred, no doubt gratefully, by teachers.

All year long, the Breakthrough Team -- hourly school-system employees with a love for kids, strong constitutions and street smarts -- had been helping the kids work through their problems: discouraging truancy by visiting and calling their homes, bailing them out, discouraging drug-taking and drinking, trying to make peace at nearby shopping centers and other hangouts, salving the wounds of lost loves and aborted babies. Breakthrough Team members, now operating in all city zoned high schools but Southern, are combination social workers and counselors, unlike the traditional ''guidance counselors'' who sit in offices and see students by appointment.

The ''B-Team'' successes were there in the flesh Wednesday, still in school, some ready to graduate, many dressed in Sunday finest. There were certificates, speeches, tears and confessionals full of thanks for the team members who had listened and cared. Is it trite to say that caring is a primary reason many young people stay in school?

Those who walked across the stage last night at Patterson's commencement had watched their school slide into educational bankruptcy. It had to be demoralizing, especially if they had worked hard and kept up their grades.

But let us not blame these graduates, who have demonstrated endurance against great odds, who in some cases have made miraculous recoveries.

Let us blame ourselves.

F: Mike Bowler edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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