Plan spells disaster for city's best schools

April 27, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

OUTSIDE THE principal's office at City College sit Melody Carter and Anna Friedman, when they should be in class. At this hour Friday morning, Melody's scheduled for economics and Anna's listed for biology. Instead, they sit here like a couple of condemned academic exiles awaiting punishment.

"Troublemakers?" a visitor asks a secretary sitting nearby.

"These two?" the secretary says between a blizzard of incoming phone calls. "Hardly."

The trouble this time comes from the geniuses on North Avenue, at Baltimore public school headquarters, who have thrown educators and students at some of the city's premier high schools - City, Poly, Western and Dunbar - into such a frenzy that it comes now to the children to help lead the grownups out of their intellectual wilderness.

"I'm outraged," says Melody Carter, looking up from the bench outside Principal Joseph Wilson's office at City College. She is a 12th-grader, president of the school's Students Helping Other People, and headed next year for Morgan State.

"It's so stupid," says Anna Friedman, an 11th-grader who is president of the school's Student Government Association. "Why would anybody want to lower the standards at the best high schools in the city?"

And yet, inevitably, such things are in the wind - a depressing proposition in any community, but in a city like Baltimore, with its history of troubled schools and its desperation to provide at least some oases of first-rate public education, it's a tragedy in the making.

"A potential for disaster," says Wilson, emerging from his office Friday morning. "Why this is happening, I ... "

His voice tails off in frustration. In Greek mythology, it was Cassandra who predicted disasters. In modern Baltimore, it is Cassandra Jones, the school system's chief academic officer, who is seen as helping to create a disaster.

This month, at a meeting of high school principals, Jones outlined proposed changes. As Wilson described it Friday at City, they could force him to eliminate his school's International Baccalaureate program, which has been a beacon to some of Baltimore's brightest students. He says he would have to cut as many as 19 of 84 teaching positions and increase average class sizes from 23 to 32.

Who would propose this kind of insanity? Not me, says Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo. She says she doesn't want to do away with any of the schools' rigorous academic programs. Not me, says school board member J. Tyson Tildon, who says that he and other board members will take a hard look at the proposals. As for Jones, she has been unavailable for comment.

Among the troubling notions: Citywide schools with admission standards would no longer be able to transfer out students who are failing. Instead, the schools would have to create less rigorous classes - a move that would pull resources away from the college preparatory mission of the schools.

Also, all students would be required to take an earth sciences course, and math and English every semester. Russo calls this an attempt to raise academic scores. But at the city's elite academic schools, the move would eliminate students' flexibility to take even more advanced courses.

At City, 43 percent of juniors and seniors take any of 29 different International Baccalaureate courses that earn them advanced standing when they reach college. About 95 percent of its graduates head for college, 82 percent to four-year schools.

That makes it, unfortunately, a rarity in Baltimore, whose school system has been trying to find its way out of its own wreckage for the past several decades. This is not just an impending loss for City College or the other threatened schools.

It's about a city where parents wonder: Where can I send my children for a decent high school education? For thousands of families, the answer has contributed to a decades-long exodus to suburbia. At City, there is a waiting list of students hoping to enter next fall.

To jeopardize any of those schools is insanity. It sends a message to an entire city where neighborhoods are coming back, where business development is optimistic - but where parents with school-age children wonder whether to stick around.

On Tuesday, the school board has scheduled a meeting where members of the public are invited to speak. Among those expecting to go: Melody Carter and Anna Friedman, sitting outside the principal's office Friday at City College so they could tell Joseph Wilson their intentions.

"I catch two buses to get here every day," Carter said. "If it takes me two hours, I'm coming here. That's what this school has meant to me."

"If you want to do something with your life, they find a way for you here," Friedman said.

If school officials do anything to jeopardize this, then shame on them - and shame on any city that would let them.

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