As administrators dither, kids still aren't learning

March 17, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

State School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick sits in a large easy chair with a stack of papers on her lap perhaps six miles high. As she removes one piece of paper after another, Grasmick will begin to be visible. And so will the staggering problems in the city of Baltimore's schools.

"Look at these figures," she says. And then: "Look at these figures." And then: "Look "

Start with these: a breakdown of statewide test scores, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, from various city elementary schools. They make you tremble for the future. Across the entire state, the percentages run anywhere from 30 to 45 percent passing rates. But, across the city, it's a series of single-digit catastrophes.

"Look," Grasmick says again.

Here's a school where not a single fifth-grader passed the math test. Another school where no kids passed the writing test. Another where not a single fifth-grader passed either reading or science, and another where no third-grader passed the social studies test and another where no third-grader passed the math or science tests and only a handful passed writing or social studies and

And on and on, one school following another, one awful glimpse after another into the 21st century in Baltimore, the percentages of kids with passing grades routinely down in single digits and frequently 0.0 percent, everybody failing and nobody passing.

Put aside all the other gloomy headlines about the city schools, and this is what's left. Put away last week's revelation of federal subpoenas over a multimillion-dollar school computer problem. Put away the various political battles over who will control Baltimore's schools, the city or the state, and put away the questions about bloated bureaucracies and incompetent administrators and suburban legislators bitter about feeding millions into the city without seeing results, and it still comes down to this: The kids aren't learning.

"These children," says Grasmick, "are being denied an opportunity, and they'll never recover it. And they will define the future of our society. I don't care what your economic development plans are for this city, if you don't have a population which understands, which can do technology, which can handle the industries of the mind "

Her voice trails away, maybe from weariness, maybe from hearing the sound of her own arguments too many times. She knows the unique problems of the city: too many poor kids, too many kids from broken homes. But other areas have similar problems: eastern Baltimore County, parts of Montgomery County, parts of Caroline and Dorchester and Allegany counties. But the schools are working there, the kids are learning, look at these scores in Grasmick's hands

Some of this is sensitive psychological territory, and Grasmick knows it. The city system's overwhelmingly black, and Grasmick's not. She knows the whispers about the white lady wanting to impose a plantation mentality.

"Yes," she says softly. "I know that. And my response is that it's the worst kind of racism, to say that this is the best these children can do. That's shocking beyond belief. But I'm not put off by talk about my race. My role is to be an advocate for children."

So much of the talk about schools seems to make the kids an afterthought. The city superintendent, Dr. Walter Amprey, ducks from the latest lawsuit, or the latest investigation. The mayor weighs the political fallout. The school board, allegedly independent, allegedly savvy, seems only occasionally to be breathing. And in Annapolis, where they're asked to funnel huge money into the city, the suburban legislators say, They'll only blow it. They always do.

"There's so much focus on North Avenue's mismanagement," says Grasmick, "that the children have become secondary. The state hands over $430 million, and North Avenue can't even get the right computers to track the children, so it's millions wasted that could be used for textbooks, for professional development."

The system has about 6,000 teachers. Some of them, Grasmick says, "are terrific." Some, clearly, are not. That's not a debatable issue, not anymore. You want to see more of those test scores? But here's the problem: "There's no system of evaluation. We've had less than five teachers dismissed, out of 6,000," Grasmick says.

There would be union battles over further dismissals, she says, "terrible battles. But they could be won. Irene [Dandridge, teachers' union president] says they don't want bad teachers. But you violate people's rights if you remove them without proper evaluation, and we have no system of evaluation, which we must have."

She pauses again. The stack of papers on her lap is still pretty high. She mentions a school where rats have chewed into the building. The building should have been renovated. Two years ago, the state OK'd about $15 million for city school renovations. As of two months ago, she says, most of the money was still sitting there, untouched and apparently unnoticed by various school administrators who are somehow allowed to hold onto their jobs.

She mentions political infighting. She mentions City Hall, which seems to launch a new idea every day in a frenzied late effort to ward off state control. She mentions a school board that doesn't seem to know where to place its loyalty. And then, once again, she mentions the test scores, the rooms of defeated children.

"Look at these figures," she says again.

And then again.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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