Recalling a tumultuous tenure

The Education Beat

Superintendent: The late Roland N. Patterson Sr. still inspires admiration and animosity. Now he's the name of a middle school.

May 05, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

BALTIMORE HAS schools named for George Washington, Thurgood Marshall, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Friday, the city officially renamed Greenspring Middle School in Northwest Baltimore for Roland N. Patterson Sr.

Roland N. who? A generation of students has passed through city schools since Baltimore's first black superintendent got the boot in the summer of 1975. It's been 17 years since the death of Baltimore's 15th school chief.

To this day, the mention of Patterson triggers angry outbursts. But others have wrapped the Patterson memory in mystique. Thus, the long and successful campaign to rename the first school constructed during Patterson's tumultuous four-year term.

Visionary or black racist? Those who went to Greenspring for the ceremony hold the former opinion. But those who lost jobs under Patterson's tenure beg to disagree, and so do teachers who walked a picket line for a month while Patterson told the public they were happily at work.

Revisionist history is possible only after sufficient time has elapsed, and looking back on those years, I realize now that if there hadn't been a Roland Patterson, there would have been someone else. The school system was the first major institution in Baltimore to come under black control. That transition was deeply resented, even by those who knew it had to happen.

There was deadwood, plenty of it, at the old 25th Street school headquarters, and Patterson, a stranger from Seattle, was in an ideal position to remove it. He was a splendid educator and a hard worker. He knew the system had to be decentralized, and he accomplished that, too -- inflicting a good deal of pain.

Patterson was also a terrible -- and I mean terrible -- politician. He would blurt out things that were better left unsaid, or at least said in a different forum. In the heat of the moment, he would say things that simply weren't true, and they would come back to haunt him. (His declaration that nearly all of the teachers were happy inspired a flood of letters and picket signs reading, "I'm the one.")

In the company of the b'hoys at City Hall, Patterson was the illegitimate son at a family reunion. It was inevitable that he and William Donald Schaefer would tangle and that the mayor would find a way to run the superintendent out of town. So he did, arranging a bizarre Star Chamber proceeding in which the school board was judge, witness and jury.

Midway through the renaming ceremony Friday, a white-haired man appeared at the back of the auditorium. Thomas D'Alesandro III, mayor when Patterson was appointed, said he attended to "pay my respects."

Patterson, he said, "had visions that were maybe just a little ahead of their time," but in the racially charged atmosphere of the Baltimore of nearly three decades ago, "you had to be a good politician, and Dr. Patterson, well "

Name a school after him? But of course. Patterson was far from perfect, but who is? He was a man of passion and ideas who left an indelible mark on the city school system.

Others have been honored for less.

Shots in Littleton echo among students on Net

Student comment from the Internet:

"My life has been turned upside down over the last few days, all because I wear a trench coat to school. The vice principal called the sheriff because of rumors he had heard. On Friday, I had my home searched by three deputies, and when I got to school Friday I had to spend an entire hour talking to the vice principal and a guidance counselor."

"I stood up in a social studies class -- the teacher wanted a discussion -- and said I could never kill anyone or condone anyone who did kill anyone, but that I could, on some level, understand these kids in Colorado, the killers. Because day after day, slight after slight, exclusion after exclusion, you can learn how to hate, and that hatred grows and takes you over sometimes. After the class, I was called to the principal's office and told to undergo five sessions of counseling or be expelled."

"If Dan Rather wants to know why those guys killed those people in Littleton, tell him for me that the kids who run the school probably drove them crazy, bit by bit. That doesn't mean all those kids deserved to die. But a lot of kids in America know why it happened, even if the people running the schools don't."

Skate company seeks a roll in education

From time to time we note egregious examples of creeping commercialism in schools.

Rollerblade Inc. and the National Association of Sport and Physical Education want to "bring affordable physical education enrichment to schools." Parents, children or educators can enter a contest and be eligible for free skates, a three-week lesson plan and a video "outlining in-line skating basics and safety."

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