In the Shadow of the Pen

October 15, 1994|By MARILYN McCRAVEN

For years I have heard about many of the problems that abound in Baltimore city schools. But my family's experience with one city high school over the past month has proved to me that the schools sorely need improvement.

I share our experience because I think it is instructional for those involved in school reform. So many times those at the top may believe things are working fine, but a view from the trenches tells a different story.

In September I enrolled my nephew in our local high school, Walbrook, a large, imposing structure that houses more than 1,000 students and overlooks Leakin Park.

Walbrook reopened in 1991 after being closed three years for asbestos removal. When it appeared that the school board wasn't going to reopen the school, residents there rallied to demand that the school not be abandoned. I think they should rally now to improve the quality of education there.

My nephew is a fairly typical young black male in Baltimore city schools. His elementary-school education was fair to mediocre and he doesn't generally think of school as a fun place to be. However, given the right circumstances and a motivated, demanding teacher, he can learn just as well as any student in a suburban school. That was not what we found at Walbrook.

Here's a sample of the problems we encountered:

* He was forced to start school eight days late because the staff was ''overwhelmed'' by late registrants.

* Little or no homework was given.

* He received just one textbook to take home.

* A few rowdy students disrupted classes, making it difficult to hear or understand what teachers were saying.

Repeated calls to the school's principal to complain about the lack of homework and textbooks were not returned.

Even with all these problems, what most unnerved me was his class schedule. He was assigned just four classes, one of which was something called ''team sports,'' which included some watching of sports videos. This year the school moved to a schedule of 90-minute classes instead of 60-minute ones, so students ideally are supposed to get concentrated doses of a subject each semester. It may work on paper, but not in practice.

A new student must present standardized achievement-test results for enrollment. A quick look at my nephew's test results shows that he has trouble computing fractions and decimals and he could use some help writing coherent sentences. Translation: He needs basic math and English. At Walbrook, he was enrolled in algebra and no English or literature classes. When I questioned the class assignments, I was told not to worry, that it was just for one semester and that he might get classes that I thought he needed next semester. Why would anyone teach algebraic equations to a freshman who struggles to calculate 12 percent of $1? The latter, of course, is a skill that he's likely to use on a regular basis for the rest of his life.

Finally, we had had enough. This past week I enrolled him in a parochial school, which has a good record of producing students who go on to college.

After his first day in the new school he brought home more homework than he had received in the entire month at Walbrook. His new school is in the city and its students are all African-American. While many of the students at this school may come from homes where there is an emphasis on the importance of education, the key differences between this school and Walbrook -- my nephew noted after the first day -- were that the class sizes were smaller and more manageable for teachers, and that the teachers have higher expectations of their students. There's also a strict discipline code.

Ironically, this new school sits in the shadow of the Maryland State Penitentiary where the average inmate is a Baltimore school dropout who reads on a fourth-grade level.

In this election year many politicians are calling for the construction of new prisons at a cost of at least $15,000 a cell to build and another $20,000 or so a year to maintain each prisoner. That money would better be spent building more schools and hiring more teachers and teachers aides.

Unless we really improve the education of our youth, they're much more likely to end up in a prison than a job.

Marilyn McCraven edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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