School board draws crowd exceeding 400

Range of issues ignites sparks of city activism

City College contingent largest

High school students fear weakened standards

April 30, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

More than 400 people -- angered by a range of city school issues -- appeared at last night's school board meeting in a show of displeasure and activism that has not been seen in recent years.

Newly emboldened community activists, dozens of students wearing bright-orange City College T-shirts, parents from across the city, teachers and principals showed up. And nearly everyone seemed to have a concern.

People filled the school board meeting room, which holds 240, spilled out into the lobby where they watched the meeting on television and crowded down the halls of the first floor. Guards stood by the doors, refusing to admit people after the room reached capacity -- more than a half-hour before the session was to begin.

Outside the building, another 35 people were protesting the high number of uncertified teachers in poor schools.

No matter what the complaint -- possible changes to citywide high schools, failing fiscal management or community input on the hiring of a new chief executive officer for the system -- they were passionate and vehement that school officials are on the wrong track.

While school board meetings have gradually seen better attendance since the new school board was convened in 1997 to reform the system, last night's meeting was unusual for the number of issues that drew a wide range of people from different schools.

The largest number was from City College, most of them angry that the school system is proposing changes for all citywide high schools. But students and principals say those changes could lower standards at Baltimore's premier high schools, including City.

The proposals include requiring certain academic classes and not allowing principals to reassign failing students to their less rigorous neighborhood high schools. Principals at the neighborhood high schools believe there is a two-tiered educational system that makes students feel inferior when they have to leave the citywide schools. But other principals say the ability to get rid of students who can't keep up allows them to maintain high academic standards.

Melody Carter, a City College senior, presented the board with a petition signed by 740 fellow students and letters written in German to school officials to illustrate the high level of student work. Carter said students fear losing the most rigorous courses now offered there.

"Why not bring other schools' standards up to our standards?" she asked the board. "We really want our school to stay the way it is."

School board Vice President C. William Struever said the board "remains fully committed to the high academic standards at our citywide schools." He said there was no proposal on the table, as some believe, that would result in City College having to cut 19 teaching positions.

Activist speaks

Activist Tyrone Powers also spoke before the board, alleging a raft of failures by school administrators including fiscal mismanagement, failing to investigate abuse, falsifying government reports and discrimination.

Powers, who started a group called the Children 1st Movement, wrote a letter to the school board asking for immediate response on a number of issues. He also has written letters to U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio and city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy asking for investigations into what he alleges is wrongdoing by the school system.

Powers did not provide details to explain the allegations. School system spokeswoman Edie House said the administration will look at the letter in more detail before responding.

Longtime leaders of parent and community groups in the city also expressed their concerns last night that Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones had not been asked to be the interim chief executive officer when Carmen V. Russo leaves July 1. Bonnie Copeland, who heads the local Fund for Educational Excellence and has worked closely with the school system in recent years, was appointed to the job two weeks ago.

Some said an African-American, such as Jones, should have been considered for the interim position, and others complained that the board did not seek community input before the decision was made.

School board President Patricia Welch announced last night that the board will appoint a search committee to choose a permanent replacement for Russo in late summer. The committee will include members of the public, as it has in the past, she said.

Other complaints

Included in the long list of complaints were others from union leaders who want summer school leadership clarified and want the teacher evaluation system changed.

Several other presentations were made, including a proposal to close part of Lake Clifton/Eastern High School next fall and divide students between four schools.

Half of Lake Clifton's sprawling complex would be torn down. Students currently enrolled in the school would stay at that location, but incoming ninth-graders would go to a portion of the building that now houses Thurgood Marshall Middle School and another building that now holds Fairmont Harford High, an alternative school for students having academic or behavioral problems.

A third ninth-grade class would start at Lake Clifton, but it would be separated from the higher grades.

Sun staff writer Tanika White contributed to this article.

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