Children offer words of advice

EDUCATION BEAT

Essays: For a class project, fifth-graders provide their views on the Baltimore school budget crisis, some with words of wisdom.

March 14, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

KIDS HAVE feelings about the city schools crisis, too. "Their opinions and thoughts are just as important as those of adults," Kathleen O'Donnell, a fifth-grade teacher at Roland Park Elementary-Middle School, wrote in a letter recently, "especially since all of these events are affecting them."

Accompanying O'Donnell's note was a packet of editorials written by her 10- and 11-year-olds as part of a student-initiated class project. "I think their writing is filled with humor, insightful comments and ideas that perhaps some adults should listen to," O'Donnell wrote. Here's a sampling:

Beatrix Lockwood was one of several worried about the future. "The budget crisis is going to cause many students to end up in places they don't want to be when they grow up," she said.

Classmate June Jennings opined that "people should figure out a solution rather than pointing fingers."

Sally Ratrie and Jasmine Ariel Bazinet called on President Bush for help. "I know he has the whole country to worry about," said Sally, "but he lives right next door in D.C. He could at least come see what the problem is and try to contribute a little."

Teacher layoffs will inevitably lead to larger class sizes, predicted Hope Gamper, "but the students shouldn't have to pay for what other people did."

Bernadette Little agreed: "If the city starts firing teachers, who do you think will be most affected? The students!"

Mayor Martin O'Malley took some lumps. "It seems the mayor's donation is a sly scheme to get re-elected," wrote Paul E. Taylor II. "O'Malley wants to get credit for a `generous' donation, although if he had the money, why [didn't he] use it earlier?"

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was criticized, too. Olivia Paff opined that the governor and other politicians "need to start focusing on children's education rather than slot machines."

And Sidney Stotsky was perhaps a tad more apocalyptic than the circumstances warrant: "This is like watching a huge, fast-moving boulder injuring innocent people. I think Mayor O'Malley should stop that boulder and get innocent people up and on their feet."

Teacher's book takes all inside the classroom

This is a proud day for Leslie Baldacci. The former Leslie Gernand, daughter and niece of Baltimore County educators, returns to her hometown for a 2 p.m. signing of her new book, Inside Mrs. B's Classroom, at the Towson Borders.

In 1999, Baldacci stepped away from a 25-year career in journalism and entered an alternative teacher certification program that put her almost immediately in charge of a class of seventh-graders in Chicago's South Side.

For two years - she later switched to the second grade - Baldacci kept a detailed diary. The resulting memoir is the best I've read of the Up the Down Staircase genre. It's funny and heartbreaking, written in the narrative style of a skilled reporter. Mrs. B's classroom could be in any American city. The book will resonate with teachers.

A lot of what happens is surreal. Baldacci isn't allowed, for safety reasons, to walk her children around the block to observe signs of spring in March. Yet, she said last week, "those same children negotiated those same streets without adult help going to and from school five days a week. I never saw a police car in two years at that school."

Baldacci, 49, has been following the Baltimore school crisis. She thinks Baltimore might learn from the Second City, where Mayor Richard M. Daley seized control of the school system in 1995 and made education one of his highest priorities.

"Sometimes," said Baldacci, "it takes a cataclysmic event like the crisis in Baltimore to create the mindset that we're going to have to pay a price to save our children."

She's still teaching in Chicago. This year she has 40 fifth-graders - "too, too many" - and she's considering a change, not to an easier school but to a harder one. "I'd consider going to a really troubled school and see what I could do as an experienced teacher."

Remembering one of schools' best

Some years ago, I wrote a short modern history of the Baltimore school system. It wouldn't have been possible without Vernon S. Vavrina, a retired deputy superintendent who wrote the definitive history of the system as his doctoral thesis.

Vavrina died last week at 90. He accomplished many things in a distinguished career that began in 1931. In another crisis in the early 1970s, just before his retirement, his was the calm voice of reason heard beneath the shouting at the old school headquarters on 25th Street.

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