Candidate talks straight on school failure

June 25, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When Carl Stokes speaks, North Avenue ought to tremble. He runs for City Council president declaring a simple fact which eludes the great thinkers at public school headquarters and at City Hall: They're turning out kids who can't cut it in the real world, and grown-ups in charge are not held accountable.

"Start with this," says Stokes, the words tripping over each other to scramble out of his mouth. "All kids pass. North Avenue says, 'Well, we don't want to flunk a kid, it'll lower his self-esteem.' I say, it'll be a lot lower when the kid gets out there in the real world and realizes he can't compete.

"This is fraud. It's something dreamed up by the bureaucrats at North Avenue, which is a graveyard for inefficient people. They ,, have no standards there. Have you seen them fire anybody? Maybe three people. No one is even threatened. It's a bunch of folks who belong to somebody's fraternity or pinochle club, or they're sleeping with somebody, but it's definitely a place where people are not held accountable for results."

The city's public schools are on a 25-year slide.

Four years ago, 9,051 students entered the various high schools; this year, 3,900 received diplomas. The others, nobody knows where they've gone. A year ago, the average SAT verbal score was 353 out of a possible 800. The average math score was 389.

Some of this is the fault of sleeping bureaucrats who haven't had an original idea since the changeover from slide rules, and some of it's inevitably the fault of individual teachers.

There's more to it than that, though. Stokes sees the world with clear eyes: The schools have these kids for six hours a day, and the world has them for 18, during which they go home to overworked or absent parents, mean streets, televisions blaring, unhealthy distractions everywhere. In such an equation, the schools are always overmatched. Thus, Stokes wants to change the equation.

"Schools," says the 2nd District councilman, "have to be an oasis. Open them 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening. You bring in successful men as mentors. There aren't enough men in these kids' lives. You bring them in from the churches, the businesses, and they work with these kids.

"They're not saying, 'Hey, I'm a successful guy, you can be like me,' and then go home. I'm talking about mentors. Today, the kids go home, and even the good parents aren't there. They have to work. So the kids hang on the streets.

"A lot of teachers say they don't give homework, the kids won't do it. That's where the extended day comes in. Use the extra time to teach critical thinking, personal hygiene, responsibility. But nobody talks about doing these things, because there's no vision. Test scores are down, violence is up, and nothing changes."

Stokes, 45, grew up in the Latrobe housing projects. His father worked for General Electric. There wasn't much money. But Stokes won a scholarship to Loyola High School, where he got a "superb education. They were miles ahead of the public schools."

"So I have friends tell me, 'Stokes, you're naive. The Catholic schools only take the kids they want.' But I'm not naive. I can go to schools that take every kid, tough kids, and they make it work. It has to do with expectations. We don't expect enough from these kids."

When Stokes officially announced his candidacy for council president, he went to four city neighborhoods, making certain there was a clear pattern: He was trying to reach whites as well as blacks.

"We've got to celebrate the diversity we have, not run from it," he said. "A mayor and a city council president have to take care of all neighborhoods alike, and not zero in on one more than another. But the neighborhoods have to cooperate, too.

"Like Guilford, putting up a wall. That sort of thing sends a message. It says, 'We have standards, and you don't.' It builds resentment. It tells everybody on the outside that they have no power, no prestige, and there's no way to get in without a rock. But, see, they're working on that. Guilford and Pen Lucy are working on a partnership across York Road. One of the roughest, toughest walls is gonna come down."

That's the kind of language a divided, edgy city needs to hear. Such talk has been a little muted this summer at the highest levels of City Hall. Stokes says it'll be a consistent message of his.

A week ago, he went to the Center Stage production of "Fires in the Mirror," Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman production about racial tensions in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

"What it said to me," says Stokes, "is that we've gotta go to each other's houses."

He lets the words trail away. It's a nice little metaphor for people getting to know each other. Distance breeds suspiciousness. This city seemed to be learning such a lesson a while back but, in a summer of political tensions, some seem to be forgetting it.

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