Parents, activists unite for city school reform

Grass-roots movement was born of frustration

April 13, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The problems of Baltimore's schools have long provoked concern, but rarely large-scale public demonstrations -- until now.

Two large protests have been held in the past three months, bringing together hundreds of parents in the freezing rain and cold to express their frustration with the schools. Some hope that the new grass-roots activism will change the politics of education in the city.

"Hundreds of people showed up and took time out of their schedules and said `we believe in public education.' That hasn't happened in Baltimore in ages," said Christopher Maher, education director for Advocates for Children and Youth.

The demands are not new, but a confluence of events this winter, combined with the emergence of an energetic leader, has created the Children 1st Movement, advocates said.

Maher believes the turning point was the layoff of 268 temporary workers shortly before Christmas. Many were lower-paid workers who had direct involvement with children. They worked in the school libraries, helped oversee cafeterias or tutored children having difficulty learning to read. Laying off the most vulnerable of people at that time of the year, Maher said, "outraged people."

Had the administration first cut back spending at its North Avenue headquarters, or even waited until January, the outrage wouldn't have been so great, Maher said. Then came news of growing deficits and, worse in most parents' minds, the failure of the school system to deal with the decade-old problem of lead in the drinking water at some schools.

At that time, Tyrone Powers, 41, an Anne Arundel County Community College professor, decided to make city school activism a priority.

A leader emerges

The director of the Institute for Criminal Justice, Legal Studies and Public Service at the community college, Powers decided to hold two rallies, one in front of the system's headquarters in January and another late last month on Opening Day at Camden Yards. Each drew at least 400 people.

Another rally in Annapolis to show support for increasing education funding attracted a large contingent from Baltimore.

A regular guest on WOLB radio's Larry Young show, Powers tapped in to the frustration felt by many parents, giving them hope that their voices might be heard.

"I think parents came to the conclusion that urban education was supposed to be bad," Powers said. "They didn't believe anything they could do would change the system."

But after his group successfully pressured the system to shut down water fountains in schools to ensure that children would not drink water with lead, he said, people began to think they had power.

Kalman R. Hettleman, an education consultant who has followed the workings of the city schools for decades, said he believes Powers' energy has been important.

"I think that his personal energy is helping to fill a vacuum, a vacuum of grassroots leadership."

Over the years, the city has had its share of advocates who have fought for better education for the city's children. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit a number of years ago to force the city and state to improve the schools. That, and other lawsuits, were responsible for a major reform of the school system started in 1997.

The voices of other groups, including the Baltimore Education Network, Advocates for Children and Youth and the Council of PTAs, are often heard as well. However, they have never mobilized parents into the sort of insistent voice for change that is prevalent in some other school districts.

Small groups of parents and teachers have often come to the forefront on a single issue, such as funding for a citywide high school or to prevent the closing of a neighborhood's elementary school. What is new, several advocates said, is that parents are now coming together to voice concerns about systemwide problems.

Hettleman and others believe the groundwork for opposition was laid during the past two years when the administration began failing to keep advocates and parents informed when they were considering changes in policy or other measures.

Community frustration

"I think those voices are largely being raised at this point out of frustration that the community has been cut out of the decision-making process by the leadership, Ms. Russo and Dr. [Chief Academic Officer Cassandra] Jones," Hettleman said.

"Under Russo's regime a lot of positive things have happened in terms of academic achievement, however one area that has gone backward is in public relations and parental engagement," Maher said.

Once the extent of the deficit became known this winter, Hettleman said, the public became angry. "Ms. Russo had no reservoir of good faith in the community to draw upon, that is why everything fell apart -- things started unraveling in terms of public support."

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