Task force will lobby for better city schools Parent-teacher group hoping there will be groundswell of support

November 15, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

They want their elementary school children to have books in their libraries and middle schoolers not to be afraid as they walk to and from school. They believe that high schoolers shouldn't have to learn with 50 students in a classroom.

It seems so little, but for years parents and teachers in Baltimore haven't asked for much and have expected even less.

Yesterday, 90 parents, teachers and neighbors from Southeast Baltimore who met at a local church were like many others dissatisfied with the state of the city's schools, except for one crucial distinction: They say they're going to do something about it.

With few grass-roots community and parent groups pushing for better schools, the efforts of the Southeast Education Task Force are unusual. Only Child First, a campaign by the activist group BUILD that encourages parent involvement, is doing similar work in a handful of city schools.

"We hope to get a groundswell of support for our schools," said Sister Bobby English, chairwoman of the task force.

"I think sometimes people say, 'I don't know what to do,' " she said. "We are trying to be that bridge, to say, 'This is what you can do.' "

Yesterday, the group discussed its plans for helping the 16 schools in their area from Highlandtown Elementary to Patterson High School.

The task force has surveyed hundreds of parents and teachers in every school to find out what issues are the highest priorities for them.

The group's plans go beyond volun teering in schools -- although that is included -- to lobbying for change.

For instance, parents and teachers suggested that safety patrols be created, that crowding in several elementary schools be reduced and that they lobby for more money.

They also discussed whether they would try to push for combining middle and elementary schools in the area in an effort to improve safety for middle schoolers.

"Don't we as citizens have a right to say, 'Enough'?" asked Pat Hartley, who lives in the area.

"You can't have 900 children in a school built for 400."

Dissent on alternative school

Despite the concerns over violence in high schools, a plan to create alternative schools for children who are violent or disruptive received a mixed reaction.

The school system is planning to open one alternative school in February that would take about 100 of the most violent high school students out of their schools. It would cost $17,000 per student, compared with about $6,000 spent for the average student.

Some parents and teachers said they didn't want to have money drained from regular classrooms on an expensive school for disruptive children.

Some felt the money might be better spent on programs for disruptive children in their own schools, said Barbara Moore, a member of the task force.

The task force has hired one parent organizer through grants from foundations and hopes to hire more. Tana Paddock began her organizing work in Highlandtown Elementary in September and is helping parents who want a library for the school. She will begin working at Southeast Middle School soon.

Parents' voices needed

Paddock said she believes that parents who have success getting changes in their children's schools will demand greater academic achievement throughout the city.

Patterson High School social studies teacher Matt Wernsdorfer said changes will be made when parents begin organizing. Thirty teachers can complain about something but nothing will change, he said. But when parents call, the school administration listens.

The need for strong, angry voices is felt throughout the system. In the past year, several school board members have expressed surprise that there is so little pressure from the public to improve the schools -- many of which the state considers failures.

After a year as schools chief, Robert Schiller said before he left in July that he believed the efforts by state and city officials to reform the school system would never be successful without more voices of outrage or support from the community.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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