Losing the race between education and catastrophe

February 21, 1997|By Maria Dawkins

MY DAUGHTER is a sweet, winsome 14-year-old who will, we hope, enter high school next year. She is good-natured and funny, and lacks the angst and moodiness that seem to trouble most girls her age. She is a diligent worker, and toils away at her eighth-grade lessons at home with minimal supervision from her mother. She plans to go to college and pursue a career as a teacher or physical therapist.

The problem? She has learning disabilities. Not just any school will do.

I visited my zoned public urban high school to ascertain what federally mandated support services were available to a child like mine: one who can succeed, but who may need a little boost to get there. She may need tutoring, or a little extra time on standardized tests, or help in tracking down lost assignments, or extra review to be adequately prepared for tests.

Much of the ''help'' she needs boils down to greater communication between the parent and the school. I am willing to put in my time; she is my child and I only have four children to keep up with (in addition to my part-time job). But what about the teacher with 40 children in each of her five classes? Can she be expected to go the extra mile with kids who fall between the cracks when she sees 150 or 200 students a day?

I know what will happen: my daughter will slip further behind, shamed by her poor grades, hiding her low scores from her parents in the vain hope that she will do better on the next test, until it all crashes down on her, and sobbing with grief and shame and frustration, she comes to her parents' bedroom late at night, the failing grades on her report card burning into her hand and heart. ''I tried so hard,'' she sobs inconsolably. And I know she did.

At this inner-city high school, I met with a pleasant committee of helpful, caring adults. They read my daughter's evaluation and told me that the school would, indeed, offer support services of ++ some kind. I was concerned about the school's reputation, and asked one of the committee members what percentage of the students go on to college or community college. ''A very small percentage,'' he admitted.

What they didn't tell me is what I hear from other teens in my neighborhood who attend this school. I hear first-hand accounts of insufficient textbooks, no homework, and only half a year of English. One students jokingly calls his school ''Psychoville'' and tells me about fights and fires.

I ask other parents about the school, trying to keep an open mind, and am met with an overwhelming negative response. ''I would climb mountains before I would put my kid in there,'' declares one woman who is usually a staunch defender of our community.

I read the paper: a 14-year-old girl is raped in the bathroom. There are disturbances, and police are called to the school. And the test scores? In Baltimore, some test-takers have to cheat just to get into double digits. The dropout rate? School personnel admit that only one-third of those who enter this high school will graduate. What happens to the other two-thirds? May we presume they are headed for lucrative, meaningful McJobs, or will they become statistics in Baltimore's homicide/teen pregnancy/incarceration/welfare rates?

There is one other public school option: the all-girl magnet school with a challenging college-prep curriculum. But as the application date looms closer, I am beset by my doubts. Will she even be accepted, given her learning disabilities, her generally poor performance on standardized tests and the school's rigorous standards? Could she handle the demanding curriculum? Will there be any of the extra support and home-school communication she needs?

My hopes plunge as, day after day, I call the school to try to schedule a day for my daughter to visit. No one returns my calls. For two weeks. I see not incompetence on the other end, but an overwhelmed staff. This does not bode well for a child who may need extra help.

But there is a bright spot of sorts. I have found a school that seems tailor-made for my daughter. It specializes in kids like her -- bright kids with learning disabilities. Classes are small, teachers use innovative methods, and there is a great deal of individualized attention. I know my daughter could attend this school and emerge with her spirit -- and body -- intact. They have adequate textbooks. They do not tolerate fighting or junior arsonists or, heaven forbid, rapists.

The problem? The tuition is $14,000 a year -- more than my annual salary. As I look at our family budget -- stretched beyond the breaking point by private-school tuition for our other three children -- I see absolutely no hope of squeezing out that kind of money.

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