D.C. mayor leaves salute to himself Legacy: Washington public schools offer glowing courses on Marion Barry, using materials prepared by the mayor's office.

October 22, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Among the galas and tributes for retiring Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. is an unusual kind of salute: Public school studies honoring Barry's legacy.

To some critics, this is no history lesson. The Barry story presented in the study guide, they say, is an airbrushed account that glosses over some significant blemishes of the Barry era, notably the extraordinary arrest of the mayor and his subsequent six-month prison term for cocaine possession.

When district students come to school today, their teachers will have at their fingertips "The Curriculum for the Study of the Legacy of Mayor Marion Barry Jr.," a document written by the mayor's office and distributed to the city's 146 public schools.

The 17-page profile, a short summary and a lesson plan triumphantly chronicle the mayor's 16 years in office. The materials encourage students to write stories and poetry about Barry's legacy, and even suggest they draft a Barry-themed group cheer.

The materials, an effort by the mayor's office to tell his side of the story without the interference of the press and critics, was produced by the mayor's office of communications.

Arlene C. Ackerman, the school superintendent, has made the study plan optional for teachers, and is encouraging those who do use the lessons to include material from other sources to give equal time to the unsavory side of the Barry story.

The booklets deal breezily with those episodes, including Barry's arrest in 1990, which led to his loss of the mayor's office that year, and the city's financial tailspin after his 1994 re-election.

The materials, which in one heading dub Barry "The Visionary," instead dwell on his accomplishments, such as the revitalization of downtown, the creation of summer jobs for young people and the development of senior citizen programs.

Some critics are calling the study guides propaganda. Others have labeled some of the language in the resource material racially charged and politically divisive.

These opponents urged Ackerman to block the materials, but the superintendent met with district principals earlier this week and gave the go-ahead to schools interested in the lessons.

Ackerman has stressed that no teacher would be pressured to use any portion of the study guide in their lessons.

But in a school system where nearly half the students do not graduate on time, where buildings are marred by leaky roofs and where pupils under perform on standardized tests, some residents say a tribute to the Barry era, crafted by the mayor's supporters, is a bit much.

"I think it's utterly ridiculous," says Dorothy Brizill, a community activist. "I don't think it's a good use of children's time, and, plus, it's about a man with a troubled background, so what are you going to tell children? I just thought it was a stupid idea."

Nevertheless, as Barry bids goodbye to public office after dominating district politics for the better part of two decades, he is hardly turning his back on the tribute.

Barry said he was "elated" about the lessons, a comment made at a news conference detailing plans for tonight's tribute to the mayor -- a gala headlined by author Maya Angelou and recording artists Boyz II Men.

"We're going to tell our own story -- not let you or GQ or Vanity Fair tell the story about Marion Barry," the mayor said after the press event at a public library, while a nearby television display flickered past images of Barry.

"It's historically correct," he said of the school materials. "The truth is the light."

Cities often pay tribute to departing mayors -- a brass band helped celebrate Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer's 1987 transition to Maryland governor, which he marked by jumping out of a large a box dressed as a captain of the "ship of state."

But taking the party to the schools is something new.

In recent days, D.C. schools received two dozen pages of background on 40 years of Barry history, from his civil rights activism through the present. Even Barry's critics cite his lasting contributions and say that a tribute is deserved, but only outside a school setting.

A school lesson plan ought to be more evenhanded, they say, pointing out that the bad news is difficult to find there.

A six-sentence section touches on Barry's arrest at the Vista hotel, where he was caught smoking crack cocaine in an FBI sting.

In a section titled "Personal Difficulties," the guide says Barry "fell prey to the demons alcohol and illegal substances" and that his arrest marked the lowest point of his life.

After that, the guide puts the episode in a redemptive light, saying Barry made a "triumphant return" to public office.

"Like a phoenix," it states, echoing a theme Barry himself has often sounded to rally supporters, he "rose from the ashes of despair, humiliation and personal tragedy and reclaimed his political life."

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