School officials see improvement

News media, parents given brief tour in defense of Northern

January 12, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

After refusing to comment for more than two months about problems at Baltimore's Northern High School, Principal Betty Donaldson called the school a "work in progress" yesterday and said its climate is "improving."

School system officials allowed the news media inside the building for the first time since a freshman was badly beaten on school grounds in early November, holding a news conference and 30-minute tour that included brief stops in the cafeteria and in one classroom with students in it.

In remarks in the library, city schools Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo said the 2,000-student school in Northeast Baltimore - the third-largest of the city's nine neighborhood high schools - is "turning the corner in the new year."

"We're looking forward to a lot of new things and fresh opportunities at Northern," Russo said.

Donaldson, who has declined repeated requests to be interviewed by The Sun since the November attack, said problems at Northern predated her arrival in September as the fourth new principal in five years.

"I would say if you're looking to say that the school was perfect when I arrived, we have already said that was not the case," she said.

At the beginning of the school year, Donaldson said, "We did not find certain organizations and policies and procedures in place. We have attempted now in these months to alleviate the concerns."

She said the two major problems have been damaged doors and the lack of photo identification cards for students. Students use laminated badges that are color-coded by academic concentration and do not include their picture or name.

Asked whether the school is safe for staff and students, Donaldson replied: "I will have to answer for myself. I feel safe."

The Sun reported this week that Northern has been out of control and, at times, unsafe during the current academic year, according to teachers, students and parents.

The school system reported 28 safety-related incidents and 14 arrests at Northern in September, October and November. Students were caught with knives 11 times. Five times, a student or staff member was assaulted and twice a student was robbed.

Those interviewed said some students swear at and threaten teachers, smoke marijuana, gamble and drink alcohol on school grounds, roam the hallways and vandalize classrooms - and face few consequences for their behavior.

A tour led by Donaldson yesterday moved quickly through the cafeteria as well as the hallways of the ninth-grade academy, environmental science academy and business academy, where a 17-year-old senior praised the program and said many students in it are successful.

The tour, which Russo had predicted earlier in the week would last 1 1/2 to two hours, stopped briefly in a mostly empty child care classroom and an environmental science class where students were at work.

During the news conference, Russo said that the school system has taken steps to increase security and improve the learning environment at Northern, including adding police and hall monitors, hiring new administrators and revamping the guidance department. She said work is being done to install new doors and that photo ID cards are being brought back.

"Does that mean everything is perfect? Absolutely not," Russo said. "Does it mean we're turning the corner in the new year? Absolutely."

Russo said the school system is devising plans to improve all of the neighborhood high schools over the next three years, and that Northern will be part of the first wave of reform next year.

Russo declined to comment on a grievance filed with her office this week by the Baltimore Teachers Union about safety conditions at the school. Donaldson, with whom a grievance was filed last month, also had no comment on the substance of the complaint.

Russo defended her decision to keep the media out of the school until yesterday, saying that her first priority was the safety of the staff and students and that she would not allow a "three-ring circus" atmosphere - an apparent reference to the news media.

Parent Debbie West told Russo at the news conference that she wants the school to do more.

"We speak a lot. We talk a lot. But we need to do more," she said. "I need to see details. I need to see action."

She also said Northern didn't look yesterday the way it usually does.

"Trust me, I have access," she told Russo. "I come into this building. It's turmoil."

As for the school climate yesterday, West said, "I love it. If you all could be here every day, our children would learn."

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