A traveler's reflections at the end of a journey

EDUCATION BEAT

Farewell: A reporter recalls highlights -- and lowlights -- of 34 years on the beat.

October 10, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IN MARCH 2002, I filled a page of The Sun with memories of the newspaper's Reading By 9 campaign, which was then drawing to a close after 4 1/2 years. "I don't look at it as the end of a journey," I wrote, "but only as a stop along the way."

Now the journey, too, is complete. Friday was my last day at The Sun after nearly 34 years.

That's a long time for anyone to work for one employer. I changed jobs several times, working for The Sun three times and The Evening Sun twice. For nearly half of those three-plus decades, I wrote editorials and edited The Evening Sun's opposite-editorial page. But I always kept at least two fingers on education and wrote this twice-a-week column for 10 years.

Things have changed - and they haven't. Here are a few happenings:

Maryland's higher education structure was rearranged - twice. In 1970, the Baltimore school system was legally separate from the other 23 districts. Today it's hanging by its financial fingernails and could become a ward of the state.

Goucher and Hood colleges admitted men as undergraduates. The College of Notre Dame didn't. Mount St. Agnes College went out of business (more accurately, it was absorbed by Loyola College). The state took over Baltimore City Community College, and the three community colleges in Baltimore County foolishly became one.

People yelled at each other at the first city school board meeting I covered - and at the last.

A college named Bay took over the grand and beloved Belvedere Hotel and turned it into a dormitory. Bay College and the Baltimore Colts gave new meaning to the phrase "fly by night."

Boyce F. Mosley, the most colorful principal I encountered, declared upon his retirement from city schools in 1991, "Public education as we know it is dead."

School testing became a fixation. Just as Baltimore City was getting the hang of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, Montgomery County helped kill MSPAP.

There was bound to be a major cheating scandal. Ironically, it occurred at one of the wealthiest schools in the state - in Montgomery County.

H.B. Johnson Jr. died of AIDS in 1996, but he didn't die in the Maryland Penitentiary. That's because Drew Leder, a Loyola College philosophy professor teaching at the prison, and I successfully petitioned then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer to release the talented poet, playwright and essayist so he could die with dignity. Johnson and 13 fellow maximum security inmates co-authored a riveting book of essays, The Soul Knows No Bars, edited by Leder.

Names changed all over the place, mostly for cosmetic purposes. State colleges became universities, then dropped the "state." Schools became academies. Western Maryland College, tired of being confused for a state college in Western Maryland, became McDaniel College.

Nine city school chiefs served while I was at The Sun, including the first African-American, Roland N. Patterson, and the first woman, Alice Pinderhughes. (I also survived seven Sunpapers publishers.) Covering these men and women taught me that leadership is everything. There does not exist a successful school with weak leadership.

How many millions of words flowed from my computer (and before that, from my typewriter)? Since The Sun started counting electronically in late 1990, my byline has appeared 1,444 times. There have been more than 900 Education Beat columns, about 200 of them on reading.

People ask me how I could possibly have endured, but in fact the education beat is endlessly fascinating. It covers so much of the waterfront of human activity and emotions.

The people I covered were often fascinating. Caitlin Smith, an 8-year-old third-grader in Catonsville, read a thousand books and wrote one. Calvin W. Burnett, the long-time president of Coppin State, walked from the school to the Inner Harbor and back twice a week to clear his mind. His successor, Stanley F. Battle, sings with his twin brother to raise money for the school.

One college president had a very public romantic affair with the vice president for academic affairs. Another wore a $25,000 medallion he commissioned to his inauguration. The stories go on and on.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to cover education for such a long time in this marvelous city and state, and I thank those thousands of Marylanders (big and little) who "gave me quotes" over the years, helped me understand what was going on and put up with my errors of commission and omission.

I am not going out to pasture. Rather, I am taking what I have learned about education research and evaluation and moving to an independent office in the U.S. Department of Education whose mission is to determine what works in schools and what doesn't - and to persuade educators to transfer what does work from the bench to the trench.

So I'm ending one journey and starting another. And as Garrison Keillor would say, be well, do good work and keep in touch.

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