Helping city schools

They need you, you need them

September 24, 2004|By William R. Brody

ANOTHER DIFFICULT year has begun for Baltimore's public schools.

Teachers and staff have been let go. Enrichment programs and other classes have been cut. School buildings have decayed. Many library shelves are empty.

It's taken years for the city's public schools to get buried under their fiscal and educational problems. Undoubtedly, it will take a number of years to dig them out.

But today's students don't have a number of years. Their one chance for an education that will serve them well comes this year, today, right now.

Our elected and appointed leaders will wrestle with one another over the long-term solution. They should; that's their job. In the meantime, however, the rest of us in this city must take responsibility for doing whatever we can do - right now - to make today, tomorrow and next week as good as we possibly can for the city schools and their students.

Of course, many Baltimoreans have worked tirelessly on behalf of those students for many years. Countless individuals - parents, retirees, interested members of the community - volunteer in the classroom or elsewhere in school buildings. These efforts are extraordinarily valuable.

But the job is immense. More systematic, focused efforts are also needed. Baltimore's leaders need to think creatively about the special expertise or resources that their organizations can bring to the table.

For example, I recently read with interest in The Sun that labor unions contributed the specialized skills of their members to this summer's "Believe in Our Schools" campaign, carrying out needed renovation and maintenance in school buildings. Skilled electricians and heating, ventilating and air conditioning technicians, working in the schools alongside volunteer cleanup crews, have made dilapidated schools not only more attractive but also safer and more comfortable places in which to learn.

Area colleges and universities have also found ways to help that are within our areas of expertise. For example, experts at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, have helped establish several innovative public high schools in the city.

Goucher College students teach SAT prep classes and mentor elementary and middle school students. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Morgan State University and Hopkins have collaborated on a five-year, $12 million program to train new teachers for city schools. UMBC, the University of Maryland, College Park and Hopkins offer special scholarships to graduates of Baltimore public high schools to encourage students to set their aims high.

My point is this: These are things colleges and universities can do for the schools, and do well, because we are colleges and universities. We know how to teach, we know how to organize curricula and we know how to provide financial aid to needy students. It is our business to do these things.

But every business and organization in this town has its own niche, its own area of expertise. All it takes is a little creative thinking to imagine how that expertise can be brought to bear for the good of the city schools. Everyone should invest some time in that creative thinking and see if they can't come up with some good ideas for what their organization can do.

And I'm not suggesting this be done purely out of altruism. The truth is, it should be done out of self-interest. Hopkins is Baltimore's largest private employer. We and our sister institutions in higher education depend on the city schools to produce a work force of young men and women who know how to learn, who know how to work and who are eager to contribute to society.

But we're not alone: I expect that every other major employer in the city, and nearly every one of the smaller ones, is just as dependent on the schools as we are.

We need the schools. The schools need us. It's that simple.

William R. Brody is president of the Johns Hopkins University.

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