Hard lessons develop with school takeover Teaching materials, accountability become issues at Callaway

September 25, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Problems at Callaway Elementary School began on the first day, when eager parents arrived and helped teachers open boxes containing new teaching materials.

What they saw inside the boxes shocked them: reproductions of social studies booklets from the 1950s that parents believe portray blacks and Eskimos in an offensive and racially stereotyped way.

School officials quickly took the offending booklets away and said they will substitute relevant materials in the classroom. But the initial misstep has become a symbol for the difficulties a nonprofit, church affiliated group -- which ordered the school materials -- has had in taking over a city public school.

The line drawings showed a white man, a black man and an Eskimo, each with a house: a brick rancher with a two-car garage, a thatched hut and an igloo.

The materials also contained a portrait of a family like few in the community: a traditional white family, complete with dog. The mother is described as a "helper" who does all the housework and has a job. The father goes to work.

"One of the biggest things is that our children have low self-esteem. These materials knock them down," said Felicia Stokes, who has a son, granddaughter and niece, all in the kindergarten class at Callaway.

In her neighborhood, she said, most children live in single-parent families. And, like her family, they are not traditional.

The year 1998 has been one of tremendous change for the Northwest city elementary school. First, the school was placed on the state's list of failing schools after test scores declined. Then, the school board decided to make it a sort of charter school -- one of several in the city -- and it was taken over by Payne Memorial Outreach, a nonprofit group linked to Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore.

Payne is one of two churches overseeing the management of city public schools under strict contracts with the school system.

PMO decided to use the Calvert School curriculum, which has produced a dramatic increase in scores on national standardized tests at Barclay Elementary, Carter G. Woodson Elementary and another charter school, New Song Academy. It spent about $70,000 to buy the curriculum from the north Baltimore private school.

Loss of control

The changes have upset parents, who feel they no longer have the same control over their neighborhood school. A number of popular teachers were let go this summer, and parents are concerned that teachers who remain may feel intimidated.

Parents believe the principal's role has been overshadowed by that of the PMO officials and are suspicious of the religious affiliation. And lastly, they argue that perhaps the Calvert curriculum should be put into effect next year after the it has been evaluated and teachers trained properly.

They have complained to the city school board and wondered just how much control the system will have over what happens now that the school board no longer has direct oversight.

"They had never actually run a school," said Sonya Baylor, who runs an after-school tutoring program at Callaway and has children who attended school there."When they came to the school they promised they would work with the parents. There is no forum for parents to get information or get questions answered."

But PMO Chairwoman Vashti McKenzie and Calloway Principal Joyce Middleton believe the parents who have been complaining the most may not represent the feelings of the majority. McKenzie believes parents will come to like the changes.

"When they see how their young people grow and learn as we know they will," she said, parental concerns should be quieted. She said she has held several meetings with parents and will continue to do so on a monthly basis.

McKenzie points out that the Calvert curriculum was chosen because of its proven track record and that other inner city schools have successfully adapted the program.

"It is a private school education offered to a public school free" by the nonprofit, she said.

Defending curriculum

McKenzie acknowledged that there are materials that might seem insensitive to members of non-traditional families. But she said the core of the curriculum is contained in widely used textbooks that are published by MacMillan/McGraw Hill and Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich Inc. They portray people of all different races and cultures.

The MacMillan textbook, she said, is used in many city public schools.

Calvert has sold its curriculum and teaching materials to schools across the United States and has shipped them around the world to families who want to teach their children at home.

"Never had a complaint'

Merrill Hall, headmaster of Calvert, said he has "never had a complaint" before, but he will review the materials. "We certainly don't want to be offensive to any races," he said.

However, some Calloway parents were offended and threw the materials on the floor the first day of school. "The books were written from a white man's point of view. We were furious," said Baylor.

McKenzie said a key component of making the Calvert curriculum work is the involvement of parents in helping students with their studies at home.

"I would like to have parents who are upfront and caring rather than a parent who doesn't care," McKenzie said.

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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