Northern deserves better

May 24, 1998|By Sara Engram

AS they tackle the problems facing Baltimore City Public Schools, board members and administrators face countless tough choices -- along with the ever-present temptation to embrace a quick fix at the expense of laying the groundwork for long-term student success.

Quick fixes are especially tempting when they seem to offer the promise of solving high-profile problems that can lead to screaming headlines, frightened parents and disgusted taxpayers. Problems such as the ones that surfaced at Northern High School earlier this academic year, when an exasperated principal suspended nearly two-thirds of the school's students after they ignored her orders to report to their homeroom classrooms.

A call for involvement

Northern High School has many problems, but the bad publicity it received last fall was treated as a crisis, prompting more community and parental involvement, as well as a partnership with Morgan State University and WJZ-TV.

Now, however, school officials are flirting with the quick fix, asking the board to approve a plan that could ease the problems at Northern in the short run, but could also place more students at risk of failure.

The plan, a ninth-grade academy, sounds good, and similar programs are working well at some city high schools. But those academies operate as separate programs within the same facility, while Northern's plan would banish many of its ninth-graders to the underused and rundown facilities at Thurgood Marshall Middle School, about 4 miles away.

For school officials, the attraction of the plan is that it will reduce numbers at Northern, creating a better learning environment for the remaining students. But the rush to put the plan in place by September does not bode well for its success.

Ninth grade is a pivotal year, and it is a transition that too often goes badly. Consider one fact about Northern: Because so many students drop out during or after the ninth grade, its freshman class is bigger than its junior and senior classes combined.

Sheer numbers can make ninth-graders an unruly presence in the school, but other factors contribute as well. Because so many are foundering academically, they often become discipline problems -- a factor exacerbated by the fact that these teen-agers are coping with one of life's most awkward stages of development.

Dr. James M. McPartland, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for the Social Organization of Schools and a researcher specializing in high schools, says that a successful program for ninth-graders depends on an artful combination of nagging and nurturing.

They still need structure, clear rules with consistent enforcement. "But you can't be mean," he said. The discipline needs to be personal, imposed by name.

Dr. McPartland and his colleague, Dr. Will J. Jordan, see great possibilities in focusing on the ninth grade -- but not as Northern is proposing to do it.

Dr. Jordan terms the plan "a teacher's nightmare."

It is virtually impossible to form strong relationships with students when they are in a one-year placement -- a "holding pen" as Dr. Jordan calls it. Even if they succeed in establishing rapport with students, these teachers would not have the reward of watching them progress in later years.

Fast-track plan

Many aspects of Northern's ninth-grade academy plan are troubling -- a lack of research to support segregating these students at a distant campus; a fast-track timetable to implement the plan in September without adequate curriculum planning or staff training; and a failure to consider the effects of this plan on the ninth-graders involved or on the middle-school students with whom they would share a campus.

Yet the board is poised to vote on the plan. After all, Northern has given the school system some embarrassing moments, and the large ninth-grade classes are a big part of the problem. Remove a sizable percentage of them to another location, and Northern could become a success story.

Only, however, if you define success as a quick fix -- and ignore the larger problems quick fixes don't address.

Sara Engram is a deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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