Dropout rate in city schools needs our attention as well

January 28, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

CATHERINE PUGH had a privileged childhood. Growing up in a tough neighborhood on the west side of Philadelphia, the future Baltimore City Council member had a mother who taught reading and writing and discipline to her seven children, a father who worked every day in a rubber plant, and a Santa Claus who showed up at midnight every Christmas Eve.

Pugh says she believed in Santa until she was 12 years old. This makes her a late bloomer and, at heart, an innocent. She also believes in the public schools of Baltimore. This makes her the adult equivalent of a believer in Santa Claus.

Last week on North Avenue, in weather so frigid that even Santa would have stayed home, about 400 people marched outside Baltimore's public school headquarters, issuing a cry for help. The schools are desperate, as everybody knows. This is seen in academic scores, in a projected $31 million deficit leading to layoffs and/or forced furloughs, in outdated textbooks and not enough computers, and in some of the most troubling teen-age pregnancy and dropout rates in the country.

According to Maryland State Department of Education figures, 12 percent of African-American males dropped out of city schools last year. But that's just one year. Over the course of their school careers, the numbers multiply enormously. According to a 2001 study at the Johns Hopkins University, "Labor Market Conditions Among 16-24 Year-Old Young Adults in Maryland and Baltimore," 76 percent of the city's black males drop out before graduation.

"I would fire myself if I had that kind of a dropout rate," Pugh says. "If this was corporate America, with such a high rate of failure, they'd shut themselves down. And then you have this demonstration last week. Their hearts are in the right place, but ..."

In the freezing cold on North Avenue, demonstrators spilled across the broad boulevard and disrupted traffic for several minutes.

"Have we made mistakes with the schools?" Mayor Martin O'Malley said the other day. "Of course. And I don't blame those [North Avenue] demonstrators for being angry. But if we're guilty of anything, we're guilty of trying too much. Did we put too many kids in summer school? Yeah. But it was to break the back of social promotion. Did we hire too many teachers? Yeah. But it was to make classes smaller.

"The argument some of [the demonstrators] were making, that we're spending too much on police, and not enough on schools, that argument just doesn't hold up."

"I understand what they were trying to do with that demonstration last week," Pugh said, "but I'm not sure they have enough information. We need more support for teachers, and we need smaller class sizes. But I don't think we're facing this dropout issue as much as we should. If we were, there would be a greater sense of outrage."

The dropouts can be seen everywhere. These kids do not find work in corporate America, which finds them not only uneducated but threatening. "They're the ones standing on street corners and selling dope," Pugh said, "and then everybody wonders, `Why are they doing this?' They're doing it because they can't find a job anywhere without an education."

The study showing a 76 percent dropout rate among black males also says only half of all young people who dropped out in 2000 were able to find a job.

All of this brings Pugh back to reveries of her youth. Her family had little money but plenty of stability. Pugh remembers her mother teaching her reading and writing before she got to kindergarten.

"Every morning," she said, "my mother kissed my father, handed him his lunch bucket, and sent him to work. We had our baths, our breakfast, and then we'd go for a long walk. When we got back from our walk, my mother would start our schooling. If we asked questions, she'd say, `Look it up.' They had the World Book Encyclopedia. When we were all in school, my mother worked as a practical nurse a block from our house. She came home when we did. On Sundays, we went to church and then we visited cousins.

"And every Christmas," she said, "we had a visit from Santa Claus. They hired a Santa every year, and we peeked down from the top of the stairs."

For a moment, Pugh holds onto a kind of childhood awe. Then she comes back to these dropouts. Over the weekend, new figures arrived from the National Center for Health Statistics, showing Baltimore with the highest percentage of teen births among the nation's 50 largest cities, and the second-highest rate of births to unmarried women.

"Babies having babies," Pugh said. It's a long way from parents hiring a Santa each Christmas, and after-church visits with cousins, and teaching children to read even before they reach school.

And all the North Avenue demonstrations in the world won't change that.

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