A grass-roots group looks after its turf


Change: East Baltimore residents who worked to turn an unsafe lot into a playground celebrate its dedication.

May 26, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

SINCE 1998, the view from Sylvia Martin's East Baltimore rowhouse has improved considerably.

Then, Martin looked out from the 1400 block of North Eden Street on the buckled asphalt lot behind Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School on North Caroline Street.

The lot was strewn with broken glass, bottles and needles, no place for Martin's grandchild, a pupil at Harris, to play. If she looked hard enough just to the south, Martin could see drug deals going down in the shadow of the school.

Today, Martin says, the drug market is mostly gone. So is the asphalt. It has been hauled away, replaced by trees, benches, low fences, a basketball court and a colorful $300,000 playground on a rubber carpet soft as a mattress.

"I didn't dream we'd have a playground like this," Martin said Thursday afternoon as she watched a spirited dedication of the playground on a perfect spring day. Politicians carried on, children sang, preachers prayed, and Lucretia Coates, the charismatic Harris principal who was born in the hospital that once stood on the playground, shouted for joy.

For Martin and other neighbors of the school, the day was connected to 1998. That summer, Martin and many others under the banner of the church-based activist group Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development registered some 10,000 city voters, going door-to-door in their neighborhoods.

It was a nonpartisan drive, but BUILD leaders knew that most of those new voters would choose Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

So they did - some observers said the city vote pushed the Democratic ticket over the top - and when the re-elected Townsend visited Harris for a "walk for success" just after the election, she stood on the cracked asphalt and asked innocently about BUILD's political platform.

"You're standing on part of it," someone said. It was payback time. And high on BUILD's agenda were playgrounds at neglected city schools like Bernard Harris.

"It took a few years, but the state delivered," said Carol Reckling, executive director of Child First, BUILD's education arm. "I wish we could get the same kind of commitment from certain other politicians," an oblique reference to Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has been feuding with the organization.

Last year, Glendening and the General Assembly allocated $867,000 to build state-of-the-art playgrounds at five Child First schools. Two of them were dedicated last week.

"It was truly a community effort," said Carlos Brown, the Harris PTA president in '98, as he watched the prededication parade around the school. "It proves the power of faith. Four years ago, there was nothing out here, but we had the faith to know it was going to take place."

BUILD has been tending to Baltimore's grass roots for a quarter-century. It operates under the philosophy of the late Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky, who held the radical American notion that democracy is for ordinary people and that there's nothing dirty about those people using "relational power" to get what they want.

BUILD will announce its 2002 legislative agenda at a 25th-anniversary celebration June 2. The candidates for governor - including, of course, Townsend - are invited.

Then another voter registration drive will commence. Martin will be in the thick of it. She hopes to top her record of 50 sign-ups four years ago and to witness more improvement at Harris by the time her great-granddaughter is old enough to enroll.

"If they listened four years ago," she said, "they'll listen again."

@SUBHEDHarvesting MSPAP for salable passages

Those who think the late Maryland School Performance Assessment Program isn't worth the paper it's written on, get a load of this:

One of the reasons state officials won't allow release of a two-year-old highly critical analysis of MSPAP is that they might be able to sell parts of the exam to other states.

On May 3, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick wrote Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, to warn against publication of the report commissioned by Abell as part of a $300,000 study.

Even though the test is being replaced, Grasmick said, "We are ... exploring the marketplace value of MSPAP with other states and entities, as it has been lauded so widely as one of the nation's premier assessments."

Grasmick said she would be happy to contact Embry "when we come to the point at which our test developers believe the report can be accessed without fear of a security breach."

A spokesman for the Education Department said it has accumulated a large bank of MSPAP questions and tasks, some of which are referred to specifically in the Abell analysis.

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