An outspoken advocate for the students

County PTA Council chief brings frank style to post

October 09, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Hours after the cat dissection dispute erupted recently, Michael Franklin, the new president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County, hesitated a moment as he stood before a meeting of the school board. "I may get in trouble for saying this," he remarked.

Then he plunged ahead, asking that every one of the school system's 107,600 students get the same amount of attention as the Kenwood High junior who temporarily withdrew from her honors anatomy class because she didn't want to dissect a cat.

"They didn't need to put the child out of class because of this, but we're talking about a cat," Franklin explained later. "What do we need to do to get parents and the general public as passionate about what we're doing with general education?"

It was a characteristic comment from Franklin, who was mixing blunt opinion and unflinching advocacy for students long before taking over the 43-year-old PTA Council during the summer as its first black leader.

This is the man who angrily resigned two years ago from a committee examining the boundaries of New Town Elementary School because members were placing too many pupils in the school. New Town opened last year more than 200 pupils over capacity.

"Most people would expect a school system will do the best for kids. That's not always the case," Franklin, 43, a printing press operator, said in a recent interview.

The father of four from Randallstown brings a frank, aggressive style to the post. But longtime PTA officers said his approach is in line with the mission of the national organization, founded 108 years ago, and that Franklin is far from a chronic critic with no other purpose than causing a ruckus.

"People trust him," said Samuel Macer, an officer. "They don't think he is an unreasonable agitator, but a committed parent dedicated to the best for children."

Franklin's outspokenness obscures a naturally shy man who prefers to study issues before speaking out.

With 48,000 members in 157 units, Baltimore County's PTA Council is larger than several statewide PTA groups. Yet Franklin said one of his goals is increasing membership, which declined by several thousand during the 1990s.

He also believes parents should look beyond raising money for their children's schools toward lobbying politicians to fully fund the entire system.

He concedes he might have to moderate his outspokenness to achieve those aims.

"You try to work things out," said Laura Nossel, his predecessor. "If you have a concern, talk about it and see if it could be worked out before lambasting in public."

Another of Franklin's goals is erasing the achievement gap between minority and white students. It is an aspiration that reflects the county's growing number of black parents, and his rise suggests their growing influence.

"It says a lot about literally where the county has come," said Dunbar Brooks, a demographer who was the school board's first black president.

In 1993, Franklin and his wife, Lelica, moved their young family to the county from the city to enroll their children in better schools. An incident the next year compelled him to become an advocate for students.

A chemical was found leaking at Deer Park Elementary School, where his oldest son was a pupil. School officials told parents the substance, ethylene glycol, was not harmful to breathe.

"I remember thinking, `That's antifreeze. A teaspoon would hurt them,'" Franklin said.

As for the job of Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, Franklin said it is a work in progress. Hairston, he said, has made students the priority and allocated resources more equitably than previous administrations, but he must do more to keep good teachers in troubled schools.

"The school system has improved since Hairston has been here," said Franklin, "but it still can improve."

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