500 protest for better conditions at city schools

Rally held outside ballpark on Orioles' Opening Day

April 01, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

As thousands filed into downtown streets for the baseball season's first day of peanuts, Cracker Jack and seventh-inning stretches, about 500 protesters gathered at Oriole Park at Camden Yards for what they said was a more important reason: the city's public school children.

Carrying signs and chanting slogans such as "Children first, not last; books not bombs," the largest city school demonstration in recent years filled nearly an entire city block as demonstrators marched across a crowded Russell Street to Camden Yards -- where they hoped to turn Orioles fans' attention toward problems in Baltimore's schools.

"Take the lead out of our school system!" one man blared on a bullhorn.

"Our children are first!" another woman yelled through cupped hands.

At the base of the Babe Ruth statue, rally organizer Tyrone Powers said yesterday's march was just the start of a movement that will persist until advocates are satisfied that state and local leaders are making education a priority.

"We will continue to fight for our children. ... They will no longer be poisoned in our schools. The proper books will be given to them. The facilities will be fixed," he said. "Or we will be in places like these, where they don't want us, over and over again. We are saying on this day, `The revolution on education has begun in Baltimore City.'"

Although yesterday's peaceful march was organized by adults -- Powers and the Children 1st Movement -- city schoolchildren led the day's events, with many skipping class to do so.

"We are smart enough to know that we are put last in the Baltimore City school system," said Joi Bunton, 16, a junior at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School. "We came here to prove that we deserve better."

Bunton said that more than two dozen Mergenthaler students staged a school walkout yesterday to come to the rally, under threat of a day's suspension.

"We think it's worth it," she said. "We don't deserve this. We're just as smart as any students in [Baltimore County], or in private schools or anywhere else in the country."

In addition to leaders of prominent faith organizations, the group included many of the city's longtime education activists, such as representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and Advocates for Children and Youth, as well as the Baltimore Teachers Union.

Many of the rally participants' concerns focused on the city's aging facilities, inadequate or outdated textbooks, school safety and frustration that many schools' drinking fountains had been dispensing lead-tainted water until recently, when water coolers were brought in to replace them.

"The report about lead in the water actually got me angry," said Steve Sprague, 32, a graduate student at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Frederick Douglass High School sophomore IlaAngel Sekou-Ra said many students felt as if school officials and city and state leaders weren't listening to the adults who had been lobbying on their behalf.

"So if they're not going to take the adults seriously, then maybe the children need to come out here and tell them how the conditions are," she said. "I'm tired of having next-to-nothing."

Powers, a professor at Anne Arundel Community College who has emerged recently as a vocal advocate on behalf of city education, said the children who marched yesterday learned more than if they had stayed at school.

"Today was a social and civic lesson that will have lasting impact on the rest of their lives," Powers said. "Once they see how all these grown folks here feel about education, how these grown folks took off work for their education, they'll feel better about being educated."

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