Teacher exodus tops list of principal's fears

Baltimore City Schools In Crisis

March 03, 2004|By Will McKenna

AS THE FATHER of two girls under age 3, I find that sleep is hard to come by. The ongoing crisis in the Baltimore City school system, of which I am a part, has made a good night's rest still more difficult.

Even in the best of times -- and the last several months have been far from that -- being a principal in the city is a difficult challenge. Yes, the work is rewarding and full of joy. But it is always bone-tiring work.

I have for three years been the principal at Waverly Elementary/Middle School, which is across the street from where Memorial Stadium was. By any measure, Waverly has been a success.

Last spring, our school made "Adequate Yearly Progress," according to the term used by the No Child Left Behind Act, on the Maryland School Assessment exams. More impressive, our fifth-grade scores in reading were the highest in the state for schools with a poverty rate between 70 percent and 80 percent. Overall, more than 60 percent of our students were proficient in reading and math.

Scores are important, but Waverly is about so much more than testing. We have thriving partnerships with organizations such as Towson University and Morgan State University, the Weinberg Family YMCA and CitiFinancial. We have an active PTA. And, of course, we have terrific teachers -- true professionals who come early, stay late and seek to understand their students as individuals, as learners, as little people with big dreams.

Are we perfect? No. On any day, our work is chaotic, even messy, and we make lots of mistakes -- though rarely the same one twice. That's what makes us good.

Yet good might not be good enough.

I have many fears.

I fear that the fabulously talented and dedicated teachers we have at Waverly (and around the city, too) will leave because they have been so thoroughly underappreciated.

Make no mistake: In urban schools, the teacher is nearly everything. The fastest way -- indeed, the only way -- to close the achievement gap is through quality instruction. Everybody knows this. Yet there is persistent talk about cutting teachers' salaries and jobs. And there is virtually no talk about creating the kind of climate in which good teaching can flourish. I fear that because of this, and because of all they have had to endure in the past, and because of all the uncertainty for the future, our teachers will leave. Staying may no longer make sense.

I fear that this crisis will imperil our school's plans. We are planning to expand to prekindergarten through eighth grade in two years. What happens when we add another grade, which means about 100 more students, but have to cut four or five teachers? Will our middle school students have a counselor, a computer lab or a library? Will our students and teachers get anything close to the things they were promised? These are the questions I have. These are things that make me worry.

I have personal fears as well.

City principals recently agreed to take eight furlough days. Last year, we did not receive a pay raise. We are working without a contract. How much more do my colleagues and I have to give up?

I think hard about how much more I can afford to give up before this affects the security of my own family. I fear that not enough people -- or maybe not enough of the people calling the shots right now -- understand how difficult it is to lead others in a positive and meaningful way while filled with so much anxiety.

I think about these fears often. I also think about what would allay them. More than anything, I crave good, honest leadership. I appreciate that Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have gotten involved in this ordeal. But they need to know one thing: This is not a problem that is going to be fixed once and fixed for good, as the governor has suggested.

High-poverty schools and school systems don't work that way. What's fixed one day is often broken the next. That's why the "fixing" must look to the future, not the past, and be ongoing and relentless. That's why the people who do it must be smart, talented, compassionate and wholly accountable for their actions. These people absolutely must give parents, teachers and children a reason to stay invested in the city school system.

If we do not get this kind of leadership, and fast, then I fear that Maryland and Baltimore will never have the kinds of schools we all so desperately want and our children so obviously deserve. If we do not get this kind of leadership soon, I have little doubt that loss of sleep will be the least of my worries.

Will McKenna is principal at Waverly Elementary/Middle School.

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