The plague of lead imperils a generation

The city that can't read

When will political leaders enforce laws and end poisoning of kids in Baltimore?

January 03, 2000

LEAD paint poisoning makes a mockery of the city's effort to improve chlidren's reading scores.

Even microscopic bits of lead in the human bloodstream impairs development of cognitive ability -- the ability to read, the ability to think, to reason and to control violent impulses. Once burrowed into brain, bone and other organ tissue, impairments are permanent.

The only cure is prevention. In Baltimore, 31.6 percent of children tested have dangerously high levels of lead poisoning. That's more than seven times the national average of 4.4 percent.

In some neighborhoods, according to the Coalition Against Childhood Lead Poisoning, 60 percent of children have dangerously high lead levels.

This is because lead paint in old housing degrades -- chips, peels, turns to dust -- and finds its way into babies and small children. And a lawbook full of regulations designed to clean up the problem goes virtually unopened by state and city officials.

This is utterly shameful. The failure can only be taken as indifference.

Lead poisoning is a serious public health plague -- a threat to the lives of individuals and to the community as a whole. It will rob generations of Baltimore children of a future.

Proof of lead's destructive capacity may be found in the elementary schools of East Baltimore -- particularly on those streets where slumlords have had free rein. Reporting by The Sun's Jim Haner chronicles the abject failure of city and state authorities to use money and lead-abatement resources provided by the federal government and laws passed by the General Assembly.

The result: Children are doomed to lives of poor performance in school. Educators employ the best approaches and highly motivated teachers labor to impart what they know. Innovation and caring attentions are palpable in the classrooms.

But year after year, scores on the state's Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test show virtually no improvement in city schools. Lead-driven impairments may be one of the reasons.

In in some of the city's most lead-impregnated neighborhoods, children post distressingly low scores -- often far below the citywide averages which are themselves breathtakingly far below statewide averages.

At Collington Square ElemenTary, only 12 percent of third-graders and 12.5 percent of fifth-graders scored at a satisfactory level on the state's reading test. And Collington was close to the city average.

At Raynor Brown, the scores were 8 percent for third-graders, 8.8 for fifth. At Madison the scores were 4.6 percent and 6.5 percent. And at Johnston Square, only 4.2 percent of third-graders and 6.2 percent of fifth-graders achieved satisfactory scores in reading: 95.8 percent, in other words, failed in the third grade, 93.8 percent failed in the fifth.

The scores in some of these schools were less than a third of the pathetic city-wide averages of 15.6 percent for third-graders and 15.7 for fifth.

The presence of lead-poisoning among pupils must not be taken as an excuse for teachers and principals in these schools -- nor has it. But environmental explanations for lack of success must be considered.

Teachers could join in the call for a dramatic abatement strategy that recognizes the depth of the problem.

When he was mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke chose for his administration and for his city a worthy slogan: Baltimore, he said, should become "The City That Reads." His goal can still be achieved.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to be remembered as "the education governor."

Slogans and bumper stickers are one thing. Real commitment isquite another. Money is not the obstacle. With a treasury now approaching a surplus of nearly $1 billion, Mr. Glendening has the resources to address this problem.

He can't possibly claim to be serious about education if he's not deadly serious about ending lead poisoning. He has the resources and the know how to do it.

He needs only the political will.

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