Teachers optimistic at the 'new' Patterson High


September 05, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

Since the state ordered Patterson High School to shape up or face takeover, the school has had more starts than a track meet.

The troubled East Baltimore school was named one of two jTC candidates (the other was Douglass High School) for takeover 19 months ago when the state Department of Education launched its "reconstitution" program. Practice self-improvement or face the consequences, said state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the state school board.

Turmoil followed. First there was denial, then false starts, recrimination and "reform" that seemed more wishful thinking than substance.

But maybe things are changing.

Preparing for the school year that begins tomorrow, the Patterson faculty, 104 strong with 30 new teachers (many

replacing last year's dissidents), held a retreat last week at the city-owned boathouse in Middle Branch Park.

The food was good, the morale high, the blue-and-white shirts (Patterson's colors) a binding force. Wearing buttons reading "Patterson Pride Is Back," the teachers did a lot of laughing and planning.

Principal Bonnie Erickson and her staff looked across the Middle Branch at downtown Baltimore and believed -- for the moment -- that they could make a difference.

"The people who are here are people who want to be here. That's a big difference," said Ms. Erickson.

There's more than talk to the "new" Patterson. With the help of a Johns Hopkins University research organization with the mouthful title Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, Patterson has been apportioned into four semiautonomous academies, three organized around careers and the fourth for the entire ninth grade -- the most troubled grade in all of Baltimore schooldom.

When school starts tomorrow, students will enter their academies by separate doors, each designated by a theaterlike marquee. They'll be in their academies for the full day, not allowed to roam the school as in the past. They'll have four 90-minute class periods a day. That's an attempt to force the faculty to teach imaginatively, to go beyond the work sheet and dull recitation.

And each faculty member will act as mentor to 25 to 30 students, meeting with them daily.

James McPartland, who heads the federally funded Hopkins center, was with the teachers at the faculty retreat, as he was much of the summer and last spring at Patterson. "It's a great experience," he said. "Researchers usually sit in the office. But we have to be useful. We need to get out. It helps us understand the nitty-gritty of the change process."

Ms. Erickson also seems energized. She was criticized during the past school year as a lightweight who would never regain control of the school. Last spring, after Patterson "passed" every student to the next grade, the school had to send out corrective letters to about 250 students, some of whom had missed more than half of the school year and failed all their courses. It was a foul-up for which the principal must be held responsible, not the clerk who got the blame.

PD But Dr. McPartland said Ms. Erickson, her assistants and her fac

ulty are in control and in a new mood now. "I took a survey of the old faculty and found them fractured, frustrated and discouraged," he said. "Things are different now. They're no longer in denial. They're saying, 'All right, we're going to show the whole . . . state we can do it.'

"I have great hopes that Patterson will become a model that we can tell the nation about."

One of the more entertaining of political commercials in this year's city races is a radio spot for Carl Stokes, candidate for City Council president. In the commercial, a teacher announces to schoolboy Stokes that there'll be plenty of homework. Near the end of the spot, the teacher demands, "Carl Stokes, where is your homework?"

The voice in the commercial is that of an actress. But Education Beat tracked down the real person. She is Mary Creaghan, 84, retired librarian of Loyola High School, which Mr. Stokes attended in the mid-1960s after his elementary years at St. Francis Xavier School at Central and Eager streets.

Ms. Creaghan, who retired in 1975, remembered Mr. Stokes, but not his volume of homework 30 years ago. "You tell him I still think about him, and I hope he becomes City Council president," said Ms. Creaghan, who recalled that she once asked Mr. Stokes if he was related to Louis Stokes, the veteran Ohio congressman. (He isn't.) "I drew a blank," she said. The library at Loyola is named for her.

Special ed reaction

Last week's column, dealing with the heavy expense of special education in American schools, said we should not regard special ed as a "culprit." Only in America, we said, would society spend $125,000 a year to educate a single student "who will never hold a paid job."

Reactions were immediate. Lynne Ward, whose son is one of the plaintiffs in the suit that has forced Baltimore to alter its special education programs, pointed out that almost all handicapped and disabled people are employable.

A special education teacher at Patterson High School noted that none of the federal laws regarding the handicapped requires training for employability. "You are ill-equipped to judge," she told me, "when the results of your paid job end up on the floors of bird cages."

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