In Baltimore, more than money is needed to heal public schools

March 03, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE FRIGID sunlight at North Avenue and Calvert Street last week, Aleta Powell declared the triumph of a new morning. Hold your cynicism. Powell understands, as well as anyone, how empty such phrases sound when applied to the public schools of Baltimore. But she is also our reminder for the day: Hope is more powerful than memory.

Powell graduated Forest Park High School in 1983. She remembers using textbooks from 1954. She remembers hungering for sophisticated math, and being handed a book to teach herself trigonometry. She was an honor student and went to Loyola College after graduation. Things being how they were, she immediately flunked every class.

"You understand what this means?" she was asked now, as she stood in the cold outside school headquarters.

"Of course," she said. "It means this has been going on a long time."

She meant the decay of the public schools of Baltimore. And the false promises accompanying this decay, and the emptiness of phrases such as "honor student," and the cheating of generations of the city's children.

She also knows, because she is now director of development and communications for the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence, that those who run the public schools have a history during this long era of decay: of telling us a new morning has dawned, that change has finally come, that the children of Baltimore will be prepared for lives as fulfilling as the lives of children anywhere else.

Thus, Powell glanced across the cold corner of North and Calvert on Thursday morning, toward school headquarters where they had just held a news conference that felt like a pep rally for $20 million. It is $12 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and $8 million more from groups such as the Abell Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Aaron Straus & Lillie Straus Foundation Inc., and the Open Society Institute-Baltimore.

All of it, the whole $20 million, is geared to changing the high schools of Baltimore, with their history of academic failure, and their dreadful dropout rates, and the kids passed from one grade to the next for "social reasons" - namely, to get them out of the system and make way for the next round of failure.

But this, we are now told, is different.

"Really and truly a turning point," said Carmen Russo, the city schools chief executive officer.

"A stunning and pivotal moment," said Nancy Grasmick, the state schools superintendent.

"The toxicity of low expectations is going away," said Patricia Welch, chairwoman of the city school commissioners. "This is the beginning of something great."

Everybody hopes so - but everybody remembers hearing variations of the same songs going back, minimum, 30 years. And it was lovely to listen to these optimistic words, and to hear the number $20 million - but the language was also, frankly, a little too self-congratulatory in the face of so much depressing history.

The schools have been the city's most festering sore. Not only have they churned out kids ill-equipped to pursue their lost potential - they've also sparked years of parents packing their bags for suburbia rather than exposing their children to a second-rate academic program.

In their leaving, the city's tax base has been drained, homes have been left vacant and available to the drug class, and entire neighborhoods have been robbed of pride and security.

All of this starts with the classroom.

"Noisy, crowded, unmanageable schools," Mayor Martin O'Malley was saying at the school news conference last week. "And we now have a city with one in five adults who are functionally illiterate. That's what happens from such schools."

The mayor was trying to share school officials' optimism. After all, his job entails a certain amount of cheerleading, and he offered his newest mantra of the city's big drop in drug-related emergency room visits, and the big drop in street crime. Maybe the schools will now contribute to the good news.

But he also knows the history here of public school failure, and denial in the face of it. "Ten years of the most horrible things - low expectations," he said. "Ten years" is putting it mildly.

Several city high school principals attended last week's proceedings. All echoed expressions of hope. They talked of smaller student bodies, and smaller class sizes, because of the infusion of new money.

But the truth is this: We've been moving toward smaller classes for years. What progress we've seen has still left the schools pretty dismal. There has to be more than smaller classes.

And so, standing in the cold at North and Calvert when the news conference ended, here was Aleta Powell, who remembers some of the bleakest days of the schools, and how it nearly crushed her when she got to college and discovered how the city's schools had cheated her.

The difference now, she said, is instructors who are coming in to work specifically with teachers, and with parents. Teaching the teachers how to get material across. Convincing parents that they have to get involved in their children's education.

Because parents, too, have a history here, which directly parallels the fall of the public schools: The kids are in school six hours a day. The rest of the time, they are their parents' children. And who knows whether $20 million is enough to heal some of those wounds?

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