I want better for my children

April 02, 1996|By Maria Garriott

ARTHUR IS leaving.

Arthur is the sweet-faced eighth-grade boy in my morning car pool. When I picked him up on Thursday, a ''For Sale'' sign had sprouted on his front lawn. I was certain I knew why his parents had decided to leave their well-kept home in a middle-class Baltimore city neighborhood, but inexorably, I had to ask. As if I needed fuel for the fire that constantly burns inside me.

''You're selling your house, Art?''

''Yep'' he replied. ''My parents want to move to Howard County.''

''That will be closer to your daddy's job, won't it?'' I asked hopefully.

''Yea. But the real reason we're leaving is schools. My parents are going to put me in the public schools.''

Art attends a Lutheran middle school with my daughter. Tuition is nearly $5,000, and he has two younger brothers who also attend parochial schools. I don't fault them for wanting to move. Why pay a quarter of your income in private-school tuition when you can move somewhere else and get good schools for free?

My husband and I moved into Baltimore in 1980, when our infant daughter was two weeks old. She is now a freshman in high school, and although every year we struggle with the issue of where to send her to school, she has never attended public school.

I have visited all the public schools that serve my mixed-income neighborhood: elementary, middle and high school, and found them all wanting. In my middle school, one teacher I visited keeps her door locked to prevent wandering students from entering her classroom and disrupting her lesson. She bought books and materials out of her own pocket because the children in one of her classes could read on only an early-elementary level. She was once assaulted in the classroom. She earns far less than her suburban counterparts.

While I admire her determination and sacrifice, my admiration does not extend so far as to put my children in her class. I read the papers, I have seen the abysmal test scores. I want better for my children.

''Are you in my class?''

Trying to keep an open mind, I visited my neighborhood elementary school. I was greeted by a poster of a handgun pointed directly at me. ''Guns don't belong in school,'' it warned. May I presume that neighborhood kids in first through sixth grades are bringing guns to school? On parent-teacher night, a friend whose daughter attends that school approached the teacher. This teacher, who has nearly 40 children in a sixth-grade class, did not recognize the girl who had sat quietly in her crowded classroom for months. ''Are you in my class?'' she asked. The girl is quiet, bright and studious. She deserves better.

I will never forget the first time I visited the top-notch private school where my eldest daughter is now enrolled. Class sizes are one-third of those in the public school. My husband and I were stunned at the quality, resources and choices available to our daughter. Our gratitude and elation was sobered by our grief and anger over what her friends in the neighborhood receive. This was the Gourmet Giant; kids in my neighborhood stand in bread lines.

It is hard for me to express the frustration and anger I feel over this issue. I have seen the Baltimore city schools go through several superintendent and multiple ''reform'' efforts. Like deer drawn to shiny objects, bureaucrats launch an expensive experiment every year, with negligible results. What happened to the much-touted IBM Writing to Reading program? To mastery learning? to EAI? The Calvert School partnership seems to be the only ''experiment'' that worked, and look how hard Superintendent Hunter tried to prevent its adoption.

I have lost track of the number of middle-class families I know who have left the city in search of better schools. Like a rite of passage, the ''For Sale'' signs sprout when the children reach school age. At first, I resented it, wanting them to persevere, not abandon the ship. But as year after year passes, we see the school bureaucracy rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic while generations of children drown in a sea of illiteracy, futility and wasted potential.

''I wanted a life''

Recently, a neighbor who has felt compelled to home-school her children left the city. She is considering putting her children in school, and felt this is not possible in our neighborhood. She shared her years of struggle: the urban schools, the car thefts, littering, nearby drug dealing and accompanying violence. Her eyes filled with tears. ''I wanted a life,'' she choked.

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