First-day lesson in contrast Order: City elementary schools basked in the glow of a fresh start. But at Northern High, it was a false start

September 01, 1998|By Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie | Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF Staff writer Mike Bowler contributed to this article.

By 10 a.m. yesterday at Tench Tilghman Elementary School in East Baltimore, first-graders were deep into alphabet lessons and third-graders were getting briefed on the responsibilities that come with having their own reading books.

But across town at Northern High, a hopeful new principal and a month of planning couldn't prevent a false start on the first day. Scheduling problems resulted in hundreds of boisterous teen-agers cavorting through the halls, and at one point, Principal Helena Nobles-Jones ordered everyone back to homeroom to begin again.

Those contrasting starts yesterday helped to highlight the new school board's gains in reforming early education and how much remains to be done to attack the problems at Baltimore's most troubled high schools.

The board has spent millions of dollars and most of the past 15 months reducing class sizes and outfitting elementary schools with new materials and a coherent reading curriculum. But there has been no large-scale strategy so far to tame the city's large, wildly disorganized high schools.

Some high schools, like Northern, have new, highly touted principals this year and one -- Walbrook -- has been re-opened as a service academy run by the police and fire departments. But wholesale reform has yet to take hold.

"I'm not surprised by much I've seen today. It's actually better than I thought it would be, considering what people told me about this school before I got here," said Northern principal Jones, who was a principal and administrator in Washington before arriving in Baltimore this summer.

"But there's a lot here that needs to change. I can see that. And beginning tomorrow, we'll get into some of that change."

Pleased with opening day

School officials, nonetheless, had a positive outlook on the way schools opened.

"I'm particularly pleased with Northern," schools chief Robert Booker said after visiting the school. "Dr. Jones is a no-nonsense principal. You watch her. You'll see this school managed the right way."

Booker and other school officials spent the day touring four schools with state superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Booker and school board Chairman J. Tyson Tildon began the school day by escorting children from home to school at Federal Hill Elementary.

From there, the entourage went to the newly named and reconstituted Uniformed Services Academy at Walbrook High School, McMechen Middle-High School, Northern High and Hamilton Middle -- where the principal and teachers were excited to show off their newly renovated building.

Across the city, elementary teachers and principals excitedly cracked open the new books and materials they received over the summer. The board spent $3.8 million last spring on a new elementary reading series and teachers began training courses for the phonics-based curriculum in June.

At Pimlico Elementary in Northwest Baltimore, first-grade teacher Nadine Allen said she had everything she wanted, including dozens of new books for her children. "I thought we would have to share, but we got everything," she said.

Smaller classes

Class sizes were also noticeably smaller at elementary schools, thanks to the board's efforts to hire more teachers. At Belmont Elementary, Principal Sheila Kolman said her kindergarten and first two grades have 18 to 22 students each.

At Tench Tilghman near Patterson Park, Principal Elizabeth Turner eagerly showed off classrooms with 25 or fewer children. And even in the smallest classes, she has a teacher's aide or paid parent helper -- thanks to money added to her budget in the past two years.

"We try to have two adults in every room," she said.

At Lemmel Middle School in Northwest Baltimore, Principal Jacqueline L. Frierson pronounced her school's first day a success because nothing out of the ordinary was happening. "And that's the way we want it," she said.

The same could hardly be said for Northern. Beginning with the arrival of students at 8: 30 a.m., the climate at the school seemed to oscillate between controlled and utter chaos for much of the day. It was decidedly not the start that school officials had hoped for the school, which made national news last year when former principal Alice Morgan-Brown suspended 1,200 students for disobedience.

Principal Jones went out to greet students on their way in, but found herself corralling stragglers until well after 9 a.m.

Inside the building, many of the students roamed the halls, chattered with friends and refused to go to class.

Wrong schedules

Some students complained that the schedules they received were the ones from last school year, that room numbers and teachers were not noted on their slips and that they were assigned to classes they hadn't asked for. Others had no schedules at all.

Jones spent much of the day clearing the halls -- much the way the former principal did last year -- and confronting students who refused to follow instructions.

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