A few barbarians in the halls ruin a school

January 16, 2002|By Gregory Kane

STUDENTS ROLL dice outside the school, roam the halls and pack themselves into the restrooms.

"You can't teach a disorderly mob," laments one teacher.

"This is the garbage can of the educational system," chimes in another. Later, a student tries to rape a teacher.

A portrait of Northern High School? No, the school is a fictional one. Think back 47 years, to 1955, when the film Blackboard Jungle came out. It starred Glenn Ford, then a major star, and Sidney Poitier, who was some five years into his film career. Blackboard Jungle marked the film debuts of Vic Morrow, who later starred in the television series Combat and died while making Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Jamie Farr, who played the cross-dressing, whacked-out Corporal Klinger on the TV show MASH.

But the school in Blackboard Jungle could have been Northern. Most of the problems talked about in the film exist today. Northern's have been recounted at length. Carmen Russo, chief executive officer of Baltimore schools, tried to put an optimistic face on those problems during a news conference at Northern last week.

Some parents of those Northern students attended that news conference; and with the bodies of actual, live children on the line, they couldn't afford to be optimistic. One, Janice Laws, stood to ask Russo how many monitors would be on the stairways. Russo answered that the school would have an extra three, for a total of six.

Later, Laws elaborated for the media.

"There are crap games and drinking on Stairwell 3," she said. "A monitor needs to be on all the stairways." School officials, Laws continued, should create a stable learning environment for those students who want to learn - her daughter, an aspiring engineer, is in an honors course at Northern - by getting rid of those students who don't.

"It's just a portion of them that don't want to learn," Laws said of the disruptive students.

Laws wanted her daughter to go to Polytechnic Institute, but her grades were just a notch below the school's requirements. But at one time, Northern's academics were as good as those at Poly, City College and Western. During the 1960s, a high school diploma from Northern or Forest Park or Edmondson or Carver or any Baltimore high school was just as good as one from the three elite schools.

Somewhere along the line, that changed. City, Poly and Western still get the best students. The nine neighborhood schools get a mixture of good, average and below-average students, with just enough barbarians at the gate to cause the confusion that characterizes Northern.

Just what do we do with those barbarians? The kid who comes to school to booze and shoot craps clearly doesn't have education as a priority. But talk of kicking his trifling butt into the street - which is clearly where he yearns to be - and you get accused of being callous. Or insensitive. Heck, some folks might even play the color card and call you racist.

So cutting loose the dead weight is out. Conservatives have proposed school vouchers as an alternative, to give parents of poor children some choice about where to send their children. But liberals, ever content to shoot down a good idea - except in the rare instance when the good idea is theirs - have a problem with vouchers.

"They'll take money away from the public schools," liberals moan.

Far be it from us to take away money from an elite and esteemed public institution like Northern and leave emotionally and psychologically devastated the thousands of parents kicking down the doors to get their kids into the school. If any public school is worthy of your tax dollar, the liberal complaint implies, it has to be Northern. Look at the track record, for heaven's sake.

What options are left? What can parents forced to send a child to Northern do? First, they should look at what Maryland spends to educate one public school student. That would be a little more than $7,000 a year. Then, they should home-school that child.

Then they should sue the state of Maryland for their share of that $7,000. Parents of children who go to schools like Northern could say the money would be used for textbooks, supplies and tutors for math and science. They could make the valid claim that they could put the money to much better use than Northern or (put name of bad school here) ever could, and in an environment free of drugs, booze, gambling, fighting and licentiousness.

That should take care of the liberals who claim vouchers are no good because there aren't enough private schools to go around. There aren't. But there are sure as heck enough homes.

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