City schools must find ways to reach the `corner' kids

April 18, 1999|By Edward Burns

IMAGINE the bedlam inside a factory where 64 percent of the products topple off the assembly line, where 89 percent of what remains is labeled "substandard."

Walk the length of that line and you will find every response that might be found at a disaster site. Over there, front-line administrators and employees struggle valiantly to stay the course, while at other stations, teams stand around in frustrated disarray, and at a rare station, individuals are inexplicably compounding the problem.

Meanwhile, up on the catwalk, the nameless minions of policy are earnestly shouting directions, but their words do not translate to those down on the floor.

Schoolhouse problems

You think this could not possibly happen in the real world. No self-respecting shareholder or chief executive officer would tolerate such appalling conditions. But in Baltimore, it's business as usual in the city's public schools.

Sure, there have been attempts to bring about meaningful change. Every year something new is heralded by the school system to right the ship. They range from the strategic, with efforts like "Efficacy" -- an instructional program that focuses on individualized student lesson plans that was in vogue a few years ago and a "zero-tolerance" discipline policy -- to the tactical -- this year it is phonics instruction for reading and "portfolios," detailed files teachers are required to keep of students' work. Each effort is launched with fanfare and much good will for no one wants the debacle to continue. Yet, year after tragic year, when the numbers are added up, the same dismal figures haunt the bottom line.

It is tough to fault the logic. Teaching phonics makes absolute sense. Efficacy is a moral imperative.

Wrong approach

The logic is impeccable, but there is something amiss with the premise. With the exception of the gifted and talented programs and some offerings for special education students, Baltimore's schools employ the one-size-fits-all approach. I believe herein lies the rub.

While few people were paying attention, the intended enemies of America's 30-year war on drugs created a lifestyle that helped them cope with the reality they face daily. As with any culture, the "corner" culture evolved to require specific responses to given stimuli.

Street corner logic dictates that when you are confronted, you do not assume responsibility. Instead, you lay the blame anywhere but on yourself. Confrontation on the corner does not brook compromise; the Marquess of Queensberry rules have been rewritten to read, "strike first, then stomp 'em when they're down."

Additionally, the corner dictates that respect has everything to do with might and precious little to do with love and kindness. So what's the typical response of a corner person who is clearly hurting? He'll shrug, "No, that's allright." The logic here is never to share the self for fear of giving someone, even a friend, an advantage.

While these and other traits apply well on the corner, they fail utterly in the realm of the larger traditional culture and its institutions. Perhaps in some places, the problem is an anomaly that can be handled in house. But in Baltimore, where there are an estimated 50,000 drug-addicted adults, a systemic approach is clearly needed. Yet in our school system, that is not a consideration.

Routinely, the many children who exhibit corner traits to a debilitating degree are placed in classrooms with their more traditionally minded peers. No one knows how many such children there are, but their impact is devastating.

They enter the system woefully lacking the requisites to make the educational process work. Yet their needs are blithely ignored as we doggedly try to put up the traditional curriculum scaffolding, with simply no foundation upon which it can rest. The resulting chaos reverberates through an entire school.

Even one child who is of the corner can have an incredible impact on the process. Education is based on trust. A student has to trust in the value of education and a teacher has to be able to turn her back. When this breaks down, and there is a struggle for control of the classroom, teachers resort to the old standard, classroom management.

This has little to do with dynamic lesson plans and clever seating arrangements and everything to do with rigorous disciplinary measures. When this occurs, the educational process grinds to a halt, and the teachers and the corner kids are not the only casualties.

In Baltimore, 64 percent of entering high school freshmen do not stay around to receive a high school diploma. These are not all corner kids by anyone's calculation. Most are members of that vast majority who sit quietly in class and receive their education in dribs and dabs, between the fights and shouting matches. By third grade, only 11 percent of city schoolchildren are reading on grade level; most of them never make up that deficit.

It is simple to blame the parents. If they had done the job right, this would not be an issue. But blame does little to change reality. These parents need help themselves. But that is another issue.

We cannot shirk the responsibility. Like it or not, it is the school system's mandate to educate all of the children. Why not take the novel approach and consider their needs? Build a second assembly line and, if necessary, a third. It cannot make matters worse. We have already done that.

Edward Burns, a retired Baltimore police detective, is a Baltimore City public school teacher and author with David Simon of "The Corner, A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood."

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