New book looks at city through eyes of children

Data aim to help agencies focus on areas in need

February 14, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In Belair-Edison, teens had babies at higher rates than they did across the city. In Penn North and Reservoir Hill, fifth-graders in public school did twice as well academically as the city average - even though a third of the families in their neighborhood live in poverty.

These insights come from a new book that looks at Baltimore's neighborhoods through the eyes of children. While the statistical data at its core cover only one year, it provides a glimpse of the areas where children have to cope with multiple social problems, and where a polished neighborhood exterior can mask some surprising ills.

The Kids Count fact book, being released today by a partnership of local nonprofit agencies, is designed to help community leaders, legislators and others decide where to concentrate services in tight fiscal times.

Advocates say the neighborhood data give social service agencies the ability to isolate problem areas at the same time they show that Baltimore is a diverse city with unexpected combinations of strength and weakness.

"Citywide data are sometimes way too blunt an instrument," said Martha Holleman, senior policy adviser for the Safe and Sound Campaign, a member of the consortium. "What we've got now is increased precision."

Safe and Sound already has used the data to focus its efforts - for example, identifying neighborhoods where young families should receive home visits and creating spontaneous playgrounds in summer by bringing young people and toys to street corners and lots where kids have been idle.

For its analysis, the groups identified 55 communities based on census tracts assembled by the Baltimore City Data Collaborative, a 5-year-old organization. The report's neighborhoods have different boundaries than city officials formally use.

"The neighborhood portraits, I think, will really distinguish this both as a way to have accountability for results and encourage local ownership of the problems," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

In Jonestown/Oldtown, which abuts the city detention center complex and flows south to the harbor and east to the edge of Johns Hopkins Hospital, many of the numbers were bleak.

Sixty percent of its families lived in poverty in 1998 - three times Baltimore's overall rate for that year. Unemployment stood at 11.5 percent in 2000, compared with 7 percent across the city.

Nearly a third of public middle school students in Jonestown/Oldtown missed at least 20 days of class that year, along with two-thirds of high school students. And not one eighth-grader got a satisfactory score on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program's reading test in 2000, the report found.

The neighborhood's Lombard Middle School is the object of a school-system reform program, as well as an ambitious philanthropic plan hatched by investment manager Eddie Brown and his wife, Sylvia. They have given $5 million to improve the academic prospects of middle school students on the east and west sides of town.

Parents and children in the community - home to a 6-year-old, mixed-income townhouse development that replaced the dilapidated Lafayette Courts high rise - say the statistics don't provide a complete picture of life there. But they concede that Jonestown can be a tough place to grow up.

Yvonne Slater, the mother of five children ages 10 to 14 who live in the Pleasant View Gardens townhouse complex, knows the dangers. Two years ago, she quit a job as a teachers aide to focus on helping her children stay in school and on track. When classes are done, she makes sure the children are at an after-school center or home with her.

"They're at that age range where their mind can get the best of them, and you can lose them to the streets," said Slater, 35.

Dashauna Scott, a seventh-grader who spends afternoons at the neighborhood's McKim Community Center after-school program, feels sorry for the girls her age who have gotten pregnant.

"I cannot understand why that happens," she said. "They should be focused on school."

In many cases, though not all, statistics showing children's welfare followed the trend of neighborhood income. Roland Park, with an average family income of $190,327 in 2000, had no infant deaths, no arrests of juveniles for violent crimes, no child deaths, no births to teens younger than 17 and no lead paint violations.

But the data yielded some anomalies. For example:

In Midtown, Jonestown's western neighbor, students exceeded citywide rates of MSPAP achievement, though the poverty rate was higher than the city overall. High school truancy also was lower, while children were neglected at a higher rate.

The neighborhood around Patterson Park - an area of emerging revitalization - had higher rates of truancy, lower MSPAP scores and higher child abuse rates than the rest of the city, though poverty was lower.

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