Community activist offers cure for ailing elementary Low-achieving school seen needing support, encouragement

January 30, 1996|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

Lewis Bracy believes he has a plan to cure what ails Van Bokkelen Elementary School.

Put the students in uniform, start a quasi-military training program, lengthen the school day and year, create all-male classes, hire more black male teachers and pressure parents whose children miss too much school.

"The kids are not dumb," Mr. Bracy, a spokesman for Maryland Forum of African American Leaders, said yesterday. "All they need is encouragement and support."

The Severn school serves the low-income communities of Orchards at Severn, Warfield and Still Meadows, where households are headed mostly by single mothers and the populations are transient.

Van Bokkelen scored lower than any county elementary school on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program in the 1994-1995 school year.

Last week, it was placed on a list of schools in danger of being taken over by the state Department of Education.

Anne Arundel County School Superintendent Carol S. Parham must come up with a plan to turn the school around, but she is not ready to talk about specifics.

But Mr. Bracy, 42, chairman of Blacks for Success, an Anne Arundel self-help group, is ready. The security officer and community activist has developed a five-point plan he says will help meet needs of students at Van Bokkelen and other schools in poor areas.

Under his plan, the school would:

* Bring in black male teachers from other county schools and form a few all-male classes because "most of these young males in these households have no positive male role models," he said. Van Bokkelen's student population is predominantly black. Principal Charles Owens and the physical education teacher are the only two black men employed at the school.

* Require students to wear uniforms. Peer pressure to wear certain shoes and clothing is distracting to students and expensive for parents, Mr. Bracy said.

* Lengthen the school day and go to a year-round schedule with shorter vacations throughout the year to emulate systems in other countries where students excel.

* Start an elementary school version of the Junior ROTC program in place in some high schools, and recruit retired military personnel as teachers' aides and mentors to add a sense of discipline to students' lives.

* Sanction parents who receive public assistance if their children miss more than a certain number of days to encourage them to be sure their children get to school.

Mr. Bracy said he wants to present his proposals to the school board tomorrow and later to the County Council. Dr. Parham agreed to meet with Mr. Bracy in February, said Jane Doyle, county school spokeswoman.

Mr. Owens said he is open to measures that might be considered radical.

"Obviously, some of the things we have done in the past have not worked," he said. "I am not opposed to any of the suggestions that Mr. Bracy has espoused."

Mr. Owens called the threat of state takeover at Van Bokkelen "a wake-up call" for the county that may motivate officials to try new solutions at the school.

Baltimore was the first urban public school system in the nation to form all-male classes in 1987, and they still exist there. But courts in Detroit and Miami have struck down the practice as unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Uniform requirements in public schools have become more popular in recent years as part of a back-to-basics approach to education. Last summer, the Anne Arundel school board allowed three elementary schools to require uniforms.

Maryland has only one year-round school, a West Baltimore elementary school, but a task force last year recommended that the Anne Arundel school board look into a year-round schedule.

And under former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the state reduced the public assistance checks of women whose children did not attend school or who failed to get them regular medical checkups.

Mr. Bracy, who lived in Pioneer City, now called Orchards at Severn, for 14 years, has stepped in to help his old neighborhood before. In 1992, the retired Army sergeant and other members of Blacks for Success started an after-school program that taught martial arts and black history to boys in Pioneer City and nearby Meade Village, a public housing community.

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