Grown-ups should take cue from City College

June 01, 2000|By Michael Olesker

HER NAME IS Kim Williams, and yesterday she started to weep in front of the entire immediate world. She stood there on the stage at City College, at the final assembly of the Class of 2000 before its members graduate and go their separate ways, and when she opened her mouth and got to the words "City College," all language stopped and the tears began to spill.

In the big auditorium crowd, nobody moved for a moment. Kim Williams turned from the microphone and tried to compose herself while her classmates waited. Nobody hooted, the way thoughtless kids sometimes will, and nobody laughed to make her feel even shakier than she already felt. And then came a voice.

"Take your time," a classmate called soothingly from the audience.

"Take your time, Kim," said another.

She looked humiliated, tried to talk again, failed to get words out, wept more tears and tried to wipe them away. "We love you, Kim," another kid cried from somewhere in the auditorium crowd.

And then, without warning, somebody started to applaud, and the thing spread, and in a moment the entire auditorium was applauding, not just for Kim Williams trying to compose herself in an hour of bittersweet departure, but for all the emotions behind her tears.

This has been a remarkable time for these kids. The city of Baltimore searches for signs of excellence and finds one on 33rd Street next to the ruins of Eastern High School and Memorial Stadium. The public schools hunger for a symbol of triumph, a beacon to so many other Baltimore schools beginning to struggle out of a 30-year academic slide, and a week ago the U.S. Department of Education names City a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. It's an award that goes to 198 schools - out of 23,000.

And then the strangest thing happens. For the past week, City officials have been fighting for their money - and their sanity. At public school headquarters on North Avenue, tentative plans were made to cut the school's budget next year - by 24 percent. Principal Joseph M. Wilson was told, Come up with a new per-pupil spending plan by June 7. He could not believe what he was being told.

"Who does such a thing?" asked Wilbur "Bill" Cunningham, a former City Council member who's now vice president of the Living Classrooms Foundation. "You get a school named one of the best in America, and you reward it by cutting its budget? It makes no sense. I can't imagine why anybody would think this is a good idea."

And yet, for about a week, that's how it looked. Some of it was sheer arithmetic: tight money in a beleaguered system that has to beg for alms every year. And part was perhaps a little jealousy, what one school official calls "a drumbeat" of administrators at other schools asking, "Why should City have advantages that we don't?"

And they are exactly right - but they still see the situation backward.

For the past seven years, City has gotten more money per pupil than other schools. Its average class size is 24 pupils; elsewhere in the city, the average is somewhere in the 30s.

Thus, we have this remarkable thing happening at City, which is called learning. The plan worked. If you put money into a place, and insist on standards, and hold down the class size, and challenge kids to reach their potential, you develop future citizens.

"And the nice thing," Bill Cunningham was saying yesterday, "is that these are kids reflective of the whole public school system. About 40 percent of them qualify for free lunches. About 85 percent are black. And, at some point, they made a decision to excel - and they found a high school where they could do it."

At yesterday's farewell assembly, the entire senior class rose to salute the flag - in Latin. It's not such a big deal. To attend City, every kid has to take Latin. The entire curriculum's college prep. Almost every kid goes on to college.

"The standards here are terrific," George Petrides said yesterday. He's City's football coach, and he said the words a little wistfully. He's got about 25 middle school youngsters he'd love to bring to City next year so they could play football for him - but they haven't got the grades, and City insists on holding onto its academic standards.

Is there not a lesson here for everyone? The idea isn't to chip away at City College's budget; it's to take the lesson of increased spending, and lower class sizes, and meaningful standards, and spread it to other schools. Now, City officials have been told: The money stays in the budget. There will be no 24 percent cut and no bottom-line cut of any measure.

Yesterday, the thing that happened in the auditorium to Kim Williams was beautiful to see: not just the emotions spilling over at having to say goodbye, but the great bear hug of an embrace she got from her classmates. They've learned to support each other, to cheer each other over the rough spots.

In all the places where the grown-ups in power make decisions on the public schools, couldn't they take a hint from the kids?

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