Showdown at City lacks basis, point - and 2 critics

December 02, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WELL, THAT was some swell showdown yesterday at City College. Pay attention, children: This is how the grownups look after your lives. Cassandra Jones, chief academic officer for the city's schools, and Melvin Stukes, chairman of the City Council's education committee, wanted to confront City Principal Joseph Wilson about his job, Wilson says.

But Jones didn't show up -- and then denied she was supposed to.

And Stukes, insulted that the meeting wasn't stacked the way he'd intended, took a powder a few minutes after he arrived -- and then sheepishly came back an hour later, when most of the day's important work was done, and gave a long speech telling everybody what a swell fellow he is.

"I do not participate in witch hunts," Stukes then announced.

Then what in the world does he call this?

Once more, in a time of great financial hemorrhaging, enormous layoffs of personnel and the continuing academic catastrophes across the system, do we give the citizens of Baltimore a chance to look at their public schools and ask a simple question: Why can't these public officials get out of their own way?

The request for a meeting with Wilson did not occur in a vacuum. As Wilson declared several times yesterday, it came at Jones' request after months of pressure from her related to his job performance.

But yesterday evening, Jones said, "I wasn't scheduled to be at City. I did not request the meeting."

In case you hadn't noticed, there also has been talk on one of our radio stations lately, some of it scurrilous and almost all of it without foundation, demanding Wilson's removal. The reasons are sometimes enunciated with racial overtones. Wilson is white. Thus, to some people who insist on choosing up sides by skin color, he is automatically suspect.

So let's get this up front right away: In a time when the schools are the great Achilles heel of the city, City College is one of its triumphs. Its SAT scores, among the highest in town, are up 17 points in the last five years. Its former A-course, renamed the College Advanced Studies Program, is rated in the top 4 percent in the United States. Eighty-six percent of the kids taking these advanced courses are African-American -- a rate 12 times higher than the national average. City sends 94 percent of its graduates to college -- the overwhelming percentage of them to four-year colleges. Last year, those kids won $5.6 million in college financial assistance.

Ninety percent of City's students are black. Two percent are other minorities. Eight percent are white.

All of them, regardless of color, are being prepared to make a success out of their lives, which is a statement that can be made with a straight face at terribly few Baltimore high schools.

Yet yesterday, at the request of Jones and Stukes, we had the planned confrontation with Wilson. And they had reinforcements ready. Stukes acknowledged that he invited "half a dozen" folks -- all of whom have been critical of Wilson -- to attend. One was Larry Young, the former state senator who now talks on the radio every morning.

Stukes was delighted to see his pals show up. But when he saw two reporters and three of City's student government leaders in the room, he bolted. Without Cassandra Jones -- though Wilson made clear she has pressured him about his job performance -- it was left to Larry Young to question Wilson.

"There's no assumption [of guilt] on my part," Young said.

"Neither one of us is naive," Wilson replied. He knows how the game is sometimes played. "If there's a whisper of discrimination about me, I'm in trouble."

Here are some of the whispers -- some of them raised by Jones and responded to by Wilson's attorneys in a letter to her:

That City has a bias against enrolling African-Americans. It's an odd allegation, given the 90 percent enrollment numbers. Also, in the last three years, black enrollment is up by 170 students. White enrollment is up by 26.

That teacher recruitment favors white females and that African-Americans are transferred to create vacancies. Another odd allegation, in that all hiring -- for every school -- is done with input from Human Resources on North Avenue.

That City is drawing fewer male students -- and that its athletic program has subsequently suffered because, it is alleged, Wilson "does not like sports." Another odd one. Wilson played and coached sports in high school and college. At yesterday's meeting, he barely choked out the words, "Do I make the announcements when our teams win? Yes. Do I make them when they try hard, and pull together as a team, but still lose? You're damned right I do."

As it happens, the formerly all-male City is now 64 percent female. This infuriates some alumni, who need to understand: Beating Poly in football is not justified if it means lowering the school's academic standards -- and removing one of the few remaining beacons of academic integrity in town.

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