Parent ire turns into hope after school suit Tentative settlement is hailed by plaintiffs

November 14, 1996|By Eric Siegel and Jean Thompson | Eric Siegel and Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

As involved parents and school volunteers, Keith Bradford and Roxanne Bartee-El for years have had a firsthand view of the problems of Baltimore's public schools.

What they saw made them angry: elementary classrooms with only one teacher to 35 or 40 students. Chalk and toilet paper that are rationed because budgets are tight. Workbooks that students are not allowed to write in. Outdated textbooks. Schools without recess.

"The system," said Bradford, "did not work."

Now their anger is replaced with hope, after Tuesday's tentative multimillion-dollar settlement of a lawsuit they filed with four other families in 1994 to improve schools for all of the city's children.

"The lesson here is the little people can make a difference," said Bradford, 36, father of city students Brandon, 9, and Kendell, 7. He and his wife, Stephanie, who runs a day care center, also have a preschooler, Adrian, 4.

One day, the father believes, his youngsters will understand that their family name is part of Baltimore school history; it is the name by which the lawsuit will be remembered: Bradford, et al. vs. State.

They sued in December 1994 with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, charging that city schools cannot provide a decent education because they lack the finances -- and that Maryland is bound by its constitution to help.

To avoid going to trial over this and two other lawsuits, the state tentatively agreed Tuesday to send $254 million in new aid to the schools over five years. The city agreed to grant the state greater authority over school management. Continuing negotiations are expected to yield a signed agreement by Nov. 25, and a turnover in city school leadership.

If the plaintiffs believe things will be better, it is partly out of the belief that they couldn't get much worse.

A night-shift supervisor at the Sam's Club discount store in Woodlawn, Bradford began volunteering in schools five years ago when his eldest son attended Westside Elementary School in West Baltimore. The father was a satisfied 1979 graduate of the city's Carver Vocational-Technical High School and eager to be involved in his son's schooling.

Acting "more or less as an unpaid substitute," Bradford said, "I'd run off copies for teachers, go from class to class reading stories, take the children outside for recess because there was no one else to take them."

What he saw appalled him.

Although Brandon, now in fifth grade, was reading when he entered school, Bradford said, "I was afraid that my child would get caught up in not being able to read up to standards."

His son's class lacked workbooks in 1993-1994, the year Bradford was PTA president. He discovered a closetful of workbooks, but was told by administrators that these were being stored for use by students the next year, he said.

An unhappy compromise was reached, he said. Students were allowed to have the workbooks but not to write in them. Instead, they were given clear plastic sheets to place over the pages, which they would write on and then erase.

"More time was spent adjusting [the plastic] than getting involved in the lesson," he said.

Bartee-El, 42, reports similar experiences. She is the mother of Dunbar High School ninth-grader Sean Berry-Bey, 14, and Mount Royal Elementary students Isaiah Berry-Bey, 7, and Yahsmin Berry-Bey, 6.

As a parent volunteer, she has encountered caring teachers and able principals, she said. But they lack basic supplies and classroom help.

A major premise of her lawsuit was that Baltimore schools cannot afford programs, counselors, nurses, materials and specialty staff to cope with the needs of the overwhelming number of poor children in the city.

"In my son's school [Mount Royal Elementary], where I've helped out, you have children who are hungry -- they may qualify for free breakfast, but maybe they get to school late so they miss it," she said. "And there are children who may come in with emotional burdens from home. And then the very first thing the teacher has to do is say, 'OK, children, copy your work off the blackboard now,' because there aren't enough books to give them.

"I said, 'This cannot be real.' There is so much that they need."

She added: "I got nosy." She visited a few area schools to compare what materials and facilities and staff they had and her eyes were opened, she said. "They had grass and they had recess! They had books!"

She wants her children to have their own textbooks instead of dittos, the production of which takes up valuable teacher time.

And she wants the books to be modern: "I would get books from the library for teachers, and I have seen some that are so old the facts are out of date, books from the 1940s."

She wants smaller classes: "My first-grader is sitting over there right now in a class with almost 40 children and only one teacher."

Bartee-El and Bradford know that much remains to be negotiated to seal the proposed settlement.

"It's not only money: This is what we are trying to get people to understand," Bartee-El said. "The schools need volunteers, they need aides in the classroom, they need strong management."

Both called the settlement a beginning. They know the city next must draft a plan to make sure the windfall has a direct effect on classrooms. They dream of new books but don't know whether their children's schools will actually get them. Still, both said they've promised their children that the fight has not been in vain.

"I don't plan to give up on them now," Bradford said.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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