Earful awaits schools official Parent, counselor, teacher to offer views

January 26, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Welcome to Baltimore, Searetha Smith, and to your new job as chief academic officer for the city's 183 public schools.

Now meet Carolyn Redd, a single mother who says city schools have "stolen" her eldest son's education by allowing him to reach third grade without being able to read beyond a first-grade level.

Say hello to Norris Davis, a crisis counselor at Northern High who sees substance abuse and violence seeping from the streets into his school and wants administrators to come out from behind their desks to see it, too.

And sit down to talk with Peter French -- one of the city's 6,500 teachers -- who has been working without a new contract or a raise for three years and is worried that teachers aren't being valued enough to make school reform work for city children.

Already, a proverbial line is forming outside your office, Ms. Smith, and it is full of people like Redd, Davis and French. They represent the frustration and anger in city schools -- the parents who watch their children languish in schools that are not providing them with the most basic skills; the support staff who see social ills stalking children in the hallways; the teachers who are dedicated and work hard but feel unappreciated.

Each is waiting to greet you with a tale of how city schools aren't working for them or the children they care about.

What they want is simple in concept, if not execution: Fix it.

"I think the biggest problem she faces is, where do you start?" said Michael Hamilton, president of the city schools' Parent and Community Advisory Committee. "You can deal with the lack of certified teachers. Or you can deal with overcrowded buildings, or you can deal with strengthening the systemwide curriculum.

"There are bright spots in our schools, and things that have been done that have already made some difference, like smaller class sizes and more materials," Hamilton said. "But three or four times a week, I'm presented with an incident or a situation at a school where parents or teachers or administrators are just fed up. She has got to get a handle on how widespread that is and do something about it."

A parent takes action

If Carolyn Redd has her way, Smith will waste no time beefing up academics in the city's early elementary grades.

Redd removed her son, Jesse Greenwood, from the city's public schools last week, after a 2 1/2 -year battle to get someone to recognize what she sees so clearly: Jesse is a third-grader who can't read much better than his 7-year-old brother.

His scores on a citywide reading and math diagnostic test last fall show that's true. But his report cards -- which describe him as an energetic and independent learner -- never reflected it, so he has been passed on to the next grade each school year.

Worse, says Redd, is that Jesse's third-grade class at Federal Hill Elementary hasn't had a permanent teacher since school began in September: A long-term substitute was teaching the class instead.

"I would go up to the school and visit the class and see kids running all over the place and not paying attention and not getting any work done," Redd said. "When I asked the principal about when a permanent teacher would be hired, she told me this school was lucky. She said some schools have five teachers missing. Our school only had one.

"My blood pressure went through the roof at that point," Redd continued. "My son wasn't getting an education, and nobody seemed to really care about that."

Redd, who works as a clerk at a liquor store in her South Baltimore neighborhood, took her $900 in savings and enrolled Jesse in a Roman Catholic school that costs $2,650 a year. When the Catholic school tested Jesse, it determined he should be in second grade.

"I can't afford that school," Redd said. "And I don't know how I'm going to come up with the money I'll need to keep him there, but I will. I don't have any choice. He's getting what he needs there, which is learning how to read and write.

"I work in that liquor store, running the lottery machine and slinging boxes and stuff like that," Redd continued. "But I want better for my son. I deserve better. I sure don't want him to be like these other kids out here, stealing your pocketbook or selling drugs because they can't read or write. And that's what this is about. The schools need to teach these kids their ABCs and 123s, and they're not doing it."

Redd also wants the public schools to reimburse her for Jesse's Catholic school tuition.

"They stole his education," she said. "I want it back."

A counselor's invitation

Norris Davis believes the city's comprehensive high schools, such as Northern, have been written off -- by city school higher-ups, and by the city in general.

The only time anyone pays attention, he says, is when something dramatic happens -- such as in November, when Principal Alice Morgan-Brown suspended two-thirds of the school's students after a rowdy confrontation with them over report cards.

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