Throwing Old Books At Our Children

Baltimore Students Often Must Make Do

April 28, 1997|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

In a 10th-grade civics class at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Marvin Mandel remains governor -- immortalized in a 23-year-old book assigned for homework this year.

Newer books are in use in many classrooms at Poly and other schools across the city, but here it is still possible to find texts and encyclopedias in which the Soviet Union is intact, the space shuttle is a recent invention and Jimmy Carter is the last-named president.

In the school system posting the lowest scores on Maryland's annual exams, there has been too little investment to ensure that every class has enough modern books and materials, according to parents and educators. State records show that Baltimore's spending on textbooks and materials has decreased each of the last three years, the result of decisions made by schools themselves.

Last year, the schools spent about $20.40 per pupil on textbooks, $1.17 per pupil on library books and $74.76 per pupil on other teaching supplies. Adjusted for inflation by The Sun, altogether it was the lowest amount that district has spent on the tools of teaching in 10 years.

"Pie in the sky," said Principal Ronnell Carey, describing his dream of updating West Baltimore Middle School textbooks, which are 5 years to 14 years old. He and others hold out hope that the coming school reforms will put new books into children's hands.

Maryland will send $30 million in new aid to city schools next year, part of $254 million pledged over five years. A new school board, which Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gov. Parris N. Glendening are to name by June 1, will decide how to spend it.

Calaway Braxton is hopeful: He is troubled by disparities between the schools his children attend. Braxton's daughter lugs home three and four books a day from Baltimore City College high school, a college-prep magnet school. His son must copy homework problems from the chalkboard in many classes at Walbrook Senior High School in West Baltimore.

"If he had a book, I could get into it with him," says the father, president of Walbrook's parent-teacher organization. "I could show him how interested in it I am, expose the magic of learning. If he doesn't bring home a book, how can I get involved?"

Years of inadequate funding are at the root of the problem, but management reforms of recent years have added a complication: The central office has ceded purchasing decisions to schools, believing that they know best -- and will buy -- what they need. They can't, some principals said, because they didn't also receive enough money.

In the past, headquarters chose the textbooks and bought them in bulk; shortages were blamed on glitches in distribution or budget woes caused by teacher raises.

Now, the 179 schools each get an allocation to keep teachers employed and buildings clean, but there is no city textbook budget.

There is no master inventory of the books schools choose or use, and no single curriculum guiding book selection: Each school may go its own way, and buy what it wants and can afford.

Doing business this way eliminates guesswork and the need for warehouse inventories, says James Hall, director of procurement. His copyright chief, Betty Lee, negotiates prices and discounts, then sends a 3-inch-thick catalog to schools. They don't have to use it, but many do.

"It's a matter of planning carefully," said Annie M. Harrison, principal of Armistead Gardens Elementary, where there are enough books this year.

City schools may create their own book funds by stockpiling savings each year, she said. Her teachers kept close count of losses and damage; she ordered replacement volumes last spring.

Schools can also become savvy shoppers and fund-raisers. Some principals hunt for grants, some for another district's leftover books. Some trade -- your extra math texts for my history books. Some look the other way as staffs bend copyright laws.

A city reading teacher duplicates pages from a Baltimore County language arts textbook, borrowed from a friend. Her classroom has one textbook for every two children, and she puts $600 a year of her own money into photocopying, she estimated.

Strong parental support helps.

To improve its language arts scores on state exams, the management team of parents and staff at Woodhome Elementary in Northeast Baltimore decided to buy a strong book series. The cost: Nearly $20,000.

To squeeze the money from the school's budget, Principal Ronne Lippenholz eliminated a physical education teacher's job. Woodhome's parent-teacher association stepped in, raising money to replace the teacher and hire additional part-time instructors.

It contributed $6,000 to buy the workbooks that go with the new texts "so our children could have their own," said Nancy Syntax, PTA president.

Other schools make do with their budgets, which vary from roughly $3,100 a pupil to more than $11,000 a pupil, depending on a school's enrollment, curriculum, special education aid and eligibility for grants.

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