Spending $254 million would be a breeze

March 09, 1997|By Susan Reimer

LIKE SOMEONE daydreaming about how to spend a lottery jackpot, I know just what I would buy with the $254 million Baltimore schools may win during this legislative session.

First, I would be disappointed that I wasn't getting all the money at once, but over five years, as is the case with this proposed remedy for schools considered to be almost criminally inadequate.

But I would quickly adjust my attitude because $50 million a year is better than nothing and it is better than spending months and millions of dollars in court trying to defend a school system whose failings are so quantifiable.

And then I would start spending it.

First, I would buy mandatory pre-kindergarten and all-day kindergarten programs for every elementary school.

My children, and probably yours, went to a fancy-pants nursery school where they shed the selfish instincts of toddlerhood and learned how to play nicely with others. There they also learned how to behave within the confines of a routine. Pre-k programs can do that for children for whom nursery school is an unattainable luxury.

These same children will be ready for the introduction of modest academics during a longer kindergarten day, and first-grade teachers will love me for the rest of their lives because these children will come to them ready to learn.

Next, I would extend the school day at every elementary and middle school with after-care programs open to all children at no cost to their families. After a snack and a little playground time, the children could do homework or be tutored by teachers, aides or members of the community.

Middle-school children especially can get into all manner of trouble between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Their energy and their immature judgment can combine for such unpleasant results that we leave them unsupervised at our peril.

But an opportunity to do homework will not win many converts among middle-schoolers, so their after-care programs must be sweetened with intramurals or sports clinics, special-interest programs for kids who like to cook, act, write, play an instrument, paint and draw or surf the Internet.

Everything needed is right there in the schools. I'd pay to keep them open until at least 6 p.m.

School supplies and new textbooks are in shamefully short supply in Baltimore schools, and I'd buy plenty of both. Teachers are underpaid, and I'd fix that, too. But the most important number in any classroom is the student-teacher ratio.

Children who live in poverty are often very needy children, emotionally and academically, and they not only deserve, but absolutely must have, the attention of a teacher.

This will not happen if that teacher has 35 or 40 children in a classroom, and it may not happen if that teacher has as many as 20. Student-teacher ratios should be in the low teens, and each classroom should have an aide during math and reading lessons.

And every child performing below grade level in math and reading should have the attention of a tutor every day. The highly praised Reading Recovery program has shown that 30 minutes a day might be all it takes to bring a child up to grade level.

My purchases would go a long way toward making children more successful in the classroom, and, if they are getting attention for being successful, they are unlikely to seek it for being bad. But there will always be a hard core of students at every grade level determined to blow the doors off the classroom.

Suspension is a solution only for the children who are being distracted. Sending the disruptive child home to watch television or out into the community to cause mischief does him no good at all.

For that reason, I would pay for alternative learning environments for these kids where discipline is the first order of business and education the second. But I would also pay for counselors for them, and I would look for every chance to bring them back into the school community, because such isolation does nothing but reinforce their anti-social impulses.

L This is how I would spend $254 million on Baltimore schools.

I would not raise test standards, because standards already exist that these children are not meeting. I would not administer more tests, because testing takes away instruction time. I would not initiate a new curriculum or train teachers in new methods, because reinventing the wheel does nothing but waste time, money and the patience of teachers.

I could spend more than $254 million in five years. Lots more.

But if we have learned anything from our neighbor schools in Washington, where $7,300 dollars per student buys nothing but the lowest test scores in the country, it is that money does not teach children anything. It can be wasted or misdirected or lavished on the administration of schools, but money is not the reason children learn.

Parents are the reason children learn.

Parents are the reason children learn from the teachers the money pays for, the reason they learn from the books the money buys.

Parents who can provide a stable, tranquil home. One where there are no shortages to threaten a child's safety.

Parents who have finished high school. Parents who own books and read newspapers or magazines. Parents who provide a quiet, well-lighted, comfortable place to do homework. Parents who care about that homework.

Parents who are in touch with their child's teachers and are aware of what is happening in the school community, even if their work does not allow them much time to volunteer there.

Parents who believe in education and who believe their children can learn.

Money can't buy parents like these.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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