Wake-up call and a call for help Northern: Nobody involved escapes blame for the mass suspensions last week. But the incident could have happened at any Baltimore high school. Assistance for those schools is overdue.

The Education Beat

November 23, 1997|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

DERRICK CUFFIE took his suspension calmly. He didn't blame a soul.

Derrick, a 14-year-old freshman at Baltimore's troubled Northern High School, said he was in the bathroom when he was supposed to be picking up his report card. He wasn't out front yelling obscenities at the school's hapless principal, Alice Morgan Brown.

But he was one of the 1,200 students -- two-thirds of the school's student body -- Brown suspended Wednesday in what many saw as a bold stroke against hooliganism and others, including Brown's superiors, saw as an unauthorized exercise in insanity.

"It was a confusing day," Derrick said. "I don't blame anyone."

But there's plenty of blame to go around. It was inevitable that any one of the seven Baltimore high schools on the state's list of failing schools would implode. These schools, all but two of the city's nine zoned high schools, have been neglected for years, allowed to drift ever downward under a succession of failed policies and principals.

Statistically, Northern is in the middle of the pack. It was placed on the state's "reconstitution" list for good reason: poor student performance combined with dreadful demographics.

Every year, a third of Northern's students drop out. Nearly half are eligible for the federal school lunch program. Almost 400 of 1,800 students are in special education. Northern has no advanced academic programs, no nurse, no functioning PTA. Because so many students drop out after the ninth grade, Northern's 700-student freshman class is bigger than its junior and senior classes combined.

It's hard to make headway against these odds, and when school management is Kafkaesque, chaos is inevitable.

As a state-ordered "reconstitution-eligible" school, Northern had to come up with a reform plan. It established a four-period day (less confusion in the hallways) and decided to follow Patterson High School's lead by dividing into five "learning communities."

But school officials then tried to draw up class schedules with a computer program designed for a standard six-period day. When school opened this fall, many students and teachers lacked schedules. They wandered about while, outside, young men inaugurated the school year by driving up and down Pinewood Avenue on motorcycles without mufflers.

Scheduling wasn't the only management failure at Northern. As the year progressed, monitors from the state education department became increasingly concerned. Troubled as the six other reconstituted high schools were, they were making some progress. Northern's problems were so severe, the monitors said, that it essentially had no administration.

Interim school chief Robert Schiller has to share the blame. He knew from Day One that Northern was sinking fast. Northern did get some help from its regional office and the school system's central offices on North Avenue, but it was too little, too late. The school also got $368,000 in reconstitution money from the state, a sum that obviously has not been spent effectively.

Schiller could have sent in a team of his best people to restore order at Northern, but he waited until Brown became so frustrated last week that she snapped. Then he criticized her in ++ public, in effect hanging her out to dry.

Restructuring isn't going to solve Northern's many problems. The city needs to do more for all its zoned high schools -- for all its high schools, for that matter.

Maybe the Northern affair will wake up the troops. That's what Derrick Cuffie's mother, Gail, hopes. "I hope it's a wake-up call," she said.

Maryland schools show progress on federal goals

Maryland is showing some progress toward reaching the federal government's "national education goals."

Maryland schools and students showed improvement -- or no decline -- in all but one of the eight categories established by the National Education Goals Panel. The panel determined that Free State schools failed to reduce the number of student disruptions during the early 1990s.

Fourth-grade reading achievement was virtually unchanged between 1992 and 1994, according to the report, with only 26 percent of the state's fourth graders reaching the "proficient or above" level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Park, Peabody partnership offers music, dance program

The Park School and the Peabody Preparatory Arts for Talented Youth program have begun a partnership to help students in instrumental music, vocal music and dance.

Beginning next fall, ninth- and 10th-graders at Park will receive credit for courses taken in the 4-year-old Peabody program. Scholarships for needy students will be available, under terms of the partnership.

Education makes news, sometimes in bizarre ways

Headlines of note (compiled by the magazine of the American Association of School Administrators):

Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half

Sex Education Delayed, Teachers Request Training

Safety Experts Say School Bus Passengers Should Be Belted

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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