Southern High learns lessons

Changes: Common- sense moves -- and video surveillance -- help restore order to one of Baltimore's most troubled schools.

February 18, 1999|By Stephen Henderson and Joe Mathews | Stephen Henderson and Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Teacher Dollie Truesdale leaves her third-floor classroom at Southern High School, strolls onto the landing of Stairwell 5 and stands, fearless, greeting students.

"Good morning!" she says, beaming at a group of boys climbing toward her. "You're late. I hope you have passes." The boys flash smiles and excuse slips as they hurry along, and one mutters a quick "Yes, ma'am."

"See? It's different now," Truesdale says. "I can go in any hallway, any stairwell in this school, and not be afraid."

It's ironic -- sad, even -- that a teacher can find elation in the ability to stand in a school stairwell and carry on a civil conversation with students. But this is Baltimore's Southern High, where only a few months ago Stairwell 5 seemed more like a prison yard than a school passageway.

Students set fires, greased the stairs with chicken bones, knocked out lights and covered the walls with graffiti. One brandished a gun. Principal Darline Lyles warned students and teachers to stay out of Stairwell 5 and its close cousin, Stairwell 6, comparing them to Baltimore streets you wouldn't walk down at night. She routinely declared "lockdowns" to sweep warring neighborhood thugs out of her building, only to see some sneak back in.

To visit Southern today is to see a different school, transformed by a few common-sense changes implemented in November and December. Standing on the third level of Stairwell 5, Truesdale points proudly to the squeaky-clean stairs and graffiti-free walls. Four video cameras record the comings and goings of potential troublemakers.

There hasn't been a fire at Southern in more than three weeks, she says -- seemingly an eternity here. The hallways are orderly. When the bell rings, students go to class. And the last lockdown? No one can remember when that was.

"I can go into my classroom, keep the door open and teach," Truesdale says. "It's quiet. It's amazing."

Schools not lost causes

The story of Southern's quick turnaround is a testament to the idea that city schools are not lost causes -- proof that with a modicum of effort and attention, they can at least be orderly and safe, if not outstanding.

The question for schools chief Robert Booker might be this: Why wait for other schools to spin out of control before applying Southern's new measures throughout the city?

"Some of the techniques we used at Southern are already being implemented in other schools," Booker said last week. "We're replicating the community meetings and the community involvement, and we're beginning to look at other things that may cost more money."

Booker said he is trying to find money in next year's budget to have surveillance cameras installed in other high schools.

Lyles is convinced, though. "What they've done for Southern should be implemented in all high schools," she said. "It worked."

Improving safety

There was nothing magical about the change that Booker, Lyles and other school officials effected at Southern. It was a straightforward effort to get rid of problems and improve safety.

Lyles removed 127 students from the school -- through transfers and expulsions, and by dropping chronic no-shows from the rolls. Funds should be available for a "twilight school," which would allow some of the troubled students to continue their education at Southern after regular school hours, without bothering other students.

The ranks of Southern's "safe-school facilitators," who roam the building looking for trouble spots, doubled from three to six; two additional police officers were assigned to the school; and a probation officer set up a full-time operation on the first floor.

All told, the school has only eight additional staff members, and the school system spent a paltry $40,000 on other changes, but the difference inside the building is like night and day.

"Lyles had been yelling for help, but nobody was listening downtown," said Bill Parker, a government teacher who has been at Southern long enough to have taught many of his current students' grandparents. "But since we got some help and the message got out, things haven't been so wild. It was that easy."

Standing next to a friend who wears an AK-47 bullet around his neck, 10th-grader Rodney Barnett, a defensive lineman on the football team, says he finally feels safer inside the school than on the street. Loretta Hudson, a 17-year-old junior who says she hid in the halls and stopped coming to school during the chaotic fall, says the "big difference is you've got me in class now."

Cameras `everywhere'

"It's easy to go to class and mind your own business now," said 11th-grader Damien Parker, who lives on the east side, one of the neighborhoods whose graffiti was scrawled all over the stairwells last fall. "I think the biggest difference might be the cameras. They're everywhere."

Like a thousand pairs of eyes peering into almost every nook and cranny of Southern's sprawling, 308,000-square-foot complex, the new 32-camera surveillance system might be the school's most noticeable change.

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