Sharisse could give mayor ammunition for Annapolis

February 25, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WE COME TO Sharisse, advancing down Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday between La Princess Nails and Paradise Liquors with her baby wrapped in a blanket against the morning's cold and the mayor of Baltimore looking toward Annapolis and wondering how to ask for help.

The mayor could tell Annapolis about Sharisse. She is 16. He could talk about the baby in Sharisse's arms. The baby is 6 months old. The mayor, who wishes to coax $254 million for schools out of a balking legislature, could bring up last week's Annie E. Casey report on troubled children, and mention those like Sharisse and her baby, and talk about the morning crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue, because all are the embodiment of the Casey report, and the school troubles, and the things that shame this City Hall administration.

"Where you going with your baby?" Sharisse was asked yesterday morning.

"My mother's house," said Sharisse. She wore a black overcoat and earrings, and brown hiking boots, and took long high-hurdler strides past a man with a borrowed metal shopping cart attempting to sell a few stray items to two elderly women who were listening to none of his pitch.

"No school?"

"I tried to go to school," Sharisse said. "But my baby's father didn't come around this morning."

"Where was that?"

"My grandmother's," Sharisse said. "Where I was."

"And where was your baby's father?"

Detained by the police, it turns out. There was a call to the grandmother's house from a district police lockup. The father of the baby was waiting to see a court commissioner about bail. The father is 21 and went all the way to the 10th grade before reaching age 18 and dropping out for other pursuits.

On Pennsylvania Avenue, Sharisse shrugs her shoulders and dabs tenderly at the blanket around her baby's face as she walks past boarded-up rowhouses. In the Casey report of last week, we were informed of the obvious: Things are very bad for a lot of children in this city, who tend to take their troubles into adulthood and into the various neighborhoods.

The Casey Foundation is a national organization based in Baltimore and devoted to improving the lives of disadvantaged rTC children. The mayor could bring bus loads of these children to Annapolis, where he spends these days asking for money and attempting to reach the conscience of legislators with troubles of their own.

He should show them the Casey report. He wants money for the city's public schools, and his entire argument is wrapped in this report, which says that life is worse for children growing up in Baltimore than in almost any of the other great American cities.

On what grounds? On the grounds of teen-age births, low birth-weight babies, children living in single-parent families, children living on welfare subsistence, living in poverty, living in distressed neighborhoods, and dropping out of school more than any other kids.

Much of this could be seen on Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday morning, heading toward 10 o'clock, long after the start of school, where teen-age boys stood on the street in front of decayed housing, where women who looked like grandmothers walked with two or three toddlers at a time, and where Sharisse and her baby passed the Bad Boyz storefront and glanced at two teen-age girls, no older than 17, walking with their own toddlers, who looked 2 or 3 years old.

In a perverse way, the Casey report is a gift to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. It becomes his argument. It puts into words and numbers the very things that tear at his city's public schools, the special problems faced by its children. When suburban legislators, hearing his pleas for vast millions, tell him they've got problems of their own, the Casey report is his natural response.

What's more, the $254 million school deal is everybody's assurance that it's not just throwing more money at this mess. In exchange for funds, the state takes control. It takes control of a system that ranks last in the state in student performance, a system where 50 of the city's 170 schools have been declared academic disaster areas. In the rest of the entire state, only two other schools have been so designated.

With the proposed school deal, Schmoke yields almost all of his power over the schools to a new board of commissioners who would run the system as an independent agency. This is the message state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is trying to get through to legislators: There are strings attached to the money.

For all of this mayor's good intentions on children and education, the results have been endlessly depressing. Some of this is beyond his reach; he can't go into individuals' homes and tell them how to raise their children.

But among the great disappointments of this mayor is his choice of people running the important agencies, such as schools and housing; and how silent he's been about standards of community behavior, how clueless he seems about the need to publicly articulate the things that are tearing his city apart.

And now he goes to Annapolis, pleading for money for the public schools and for all the children like Sharisse, with suburban legislators who imagine they've got troubles that compare even vaguely.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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