Hearing today may shed light on how our schools derailed

August 03, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE SON WAS angry much of the time, and is angry still. But the anger has a different target now. The son went to public school and the father went away on the railroad, and this was supposed to change the whole country. But the son stands there in the old Camden Yards train station and remembers his father's struggle, while a few blocks away, at the federal courthouse, school officials prepare to defend themselves today, and to explain all of the lost years.

The son is Del. Tony Fulton. He was angry because his father, George Fulton, had to go away. The father was a cook on the old B&O Railroad when Pullman porter jobs were the best employment available for black Americans. In a time of Jim Crow, they scratched out the beginnings of a living. They were among the patriarchs of American labor unions, and of the mid-century civil rights movement.

All their children had to do was sit in their classrooms and let education, and the benevolent forces of history, take care of the rest. That was the plan, wasn't it? But today, in a continuing hearing before two judges, U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis and Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph Kaplan, we will hopefully hear where some of it went wrong, and where Baltimore's public schools might begin to get it right.

For here was Tony Fulton last week, standing in the dust of the old Camden Yards station and venting some of his anger. He was here because the station, located next to Oriole Park, was announcing its new name - Sports Legends at Camden Yards - and declaring its new purpose: a museum capturing the glorious history of sports across Maryland. But there was more on Fulton's mind.

As it happens, the museum is only a pop fly from the hearings at the courthouse. As it happens, also, Fulton stood there as news broke on the latest school outrage: this time, more than a hundred seniors handed their diplomas from Walbrook High who may not have fulfilled graduation requirements, and hundreds more who may have been wrongly promoted.

"We're committing educational fraud in this town," Fulton said sadly, "and it isn't working for anybody."

"Walbrook High," somebody said.

"That's only a piece of it," Fulton said. "If they looked at other schools, I bet they'd find the same thing happening. Every year, I try to get a bill passed in the legislature to stop the social promotion of kids, and it never gets anywhere. It's been going on for years. We promote kids who can't read and write, and won't be able to compete in the world. Why would we do such a thing?"

He should ask the question a few blocks away, at the federal courthouse where Baltimore schools CEO Bonnie Copeland and state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick are expected to take the stand today. They're trying to make the case that crippling budget problems have been calmed, and that nothing further will be done to damage the education of the system's 89,000 children.

It's a story we've heard before, but not in such a setting, and not specifically from Copeland, who took the job last year, when the schools acknowledged a $58 million deficit and began cutting hundreds of jobs, and seemed to sink beyond their usual chaos.

It's a strange time in this city. At the old train station last week, they talked of the marvelous plans for the new sports museum. But it transcends sports. It's about the continuing blossoming of downtown, and the great new hopes for rejuvenation of its west side, and life returning to neighborhoods once considered beyond repair.

But how do we square such things with the continuing school troubles - and the history that preceded it?

"You know," Fulton was saying now, "my father's train used to come through this station." He looked around the big building, where workers moved about and edged toward a May museum opening. The place opened in 1856 as the grand passenger terminus of the B&O Railroad, the nation's first commercial train line. It operated for about a century. Civil War blood was shed outside its doors. Abraham Lincoln passed through the station four times - once, on his way to Gettysburg.

But the history Fulton remembered was his father's, and his own. The father was one of the lucky ones, gaining steady work when so many blacks were denied all chance of it. The trips were long, and the work was a daily struggle for dignity. But it gave them a shot.

Some of the story is recounted in a new book, Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, by Larry Tye. Fulton, father and son, are in the book. The son recalls his anger while growing up, because his father was always far away.

Only later did he gain perspective: The jobs were beginning to open up. The public schools were beginning to integrate. The son was able to go to college and make his way into the political mainstream. But over the past several decades, the schools have fallen into a new kind of trouble.

"We're sloppy, we're lazy, and we don't care about our kids," Fulton said. "We lowered the bar when we should have been raising it."

This is not what the father ever imagined. Nor did the son. And today, in a federal courtroom, maybe the school leaders will explain how it all went so bad, and how they can begin to get it right.

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