BALTIMORE NEEDS public school reform, new schools and a comprehensive plan to educate all of our children.
We must stop the bleeding that finds more of our children out of school than in. And that means more than just repairing buildings or getting the lead out of the drinking water.
We must first recognize that the condition of our schools is no different from those in many cities that have old buildings, suffer years of neglect, use Band-Aid approaches to repairs, have high dropout rates and teach from textbooks that date to Jimmy Carter's presidency. The difference is that some cities, such as Philadelphia, have focused on solving high dropout rates, suspensions and problems that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago.
We have children who come to schools today in buildings that are older than their grandparents and don't have heat in winter or air conditioning in summer. Some children come to school without breakfast, many without decent clothes. Many come from single-family homes or from homes without anyone there to ensure that the children eat or get to school. In some cases, there's no environment for children to want to learn.
For some children, if we are to keep them from being caught in the criminal justice system, we may want to experiment with public boarding schools. We spend between $17,000 and $25,000 to educate children in a residential juvenile facility once they are incarcerated, so why wouldn't we want to rescue them with a residential - or boarding - school for at-risk children?
When 16-year-olds drop out of school, where do we think they're going? To fight the problem, Maryland needs to increase its legal dropout age from 16 to 18. In Baltimore, we suspend 14,000 students annually from our schools. While 50 percent drop out of school, 76 percent of that 50 percent are African-American males.
At 16, children can't get jobs or earn a decent living, so they end up on the street corners selling drugs, committing crimes and destroying their lives. Instead of suspending our children from school, which indicates there is a problem, why not send them to a charter boarding school where more counselors would be available and the discipline would be in place to equip them with coping skills and the desire to learn? There are two of them in Washington.
Baltimore could explore creating such a boarding school, especially now that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has signed a charter school bill into law.
We need to build new schools in Baltimore. Two or three schools could be built on the sprawling campuses of overcrowded high schools such as Frederick Douglass, Northwestern and Lake Clifton, which resemble prisons more than they do schools.
The school system is floating $75 million in bonds this year to refurbish some of our schools and create facilities for K-8 schools and smaller high schools. This is good.
But we should examine floating $200 million to $250 million in bonds over three years, similar to what the Philadelphia public school system did, and build 10 schools. It costs between $20 million and $25 million to build a school, and new schools are sorely needed in this city of aging school buildings that are sweatboxes and difficult to upgrade electrically.
We also should harness the talents of members of the older generation who retired from our school system and offer them incentives to return part time.
Further, the school system and local colleges and universities should partner to create public learning institutions on college campuses. This would offer a unique learning environment for our children and a great experience for our public school teachers because they would have access to more resources, better libraries and even air-conditioned classrooms. We also should conduct summer school on college campuses.
Baltimore's future depends on how well we prepare our young people to earn a living, to become productive members of our community and to not add to the illiterate population.
Our children's future is in our hands. Our commitment to providing them with the best atmosphere for learning begins with new schools and true school reform.
Catherine E. Pugh is a member of the Baltimore City Council from the 4th District.