Walbrook proposes moving 300 ninth-graders

Parents oppose idea to relocate some freshmen in effort to curb problems

October 12, 2004|By Liz Bowie and Lynn Anderson | Liz Bowie and Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Hoping to bring order to a city high school where students were setting fires and two-thirds of the student body was bumped to a lower grade this fall, Baltimore school officials are offering proposals that include moving 300 ninth-graders to a new location in mid-semester.

The proposals, presented to a group of 200 parents and students last night at a town hall meeting at Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy, were met with skepticism and outright opposition by many.

Some parents said it was a bad idea to move ninth-graders who were not causing the problems.

"Why not move the bad kids instead of the good kids?" said Wanda Kelley, president of Walbrook's Parent Teacher Organization. "It seems like you are rewarding the students who are not doing what they should be."

Some said they didn't want their children traveling longer distances by bus to another site.

"I don't see how moving the ninth-graders off this beautiful campus is going to be a solution," said Walbrook parent Betty Brown.

She said her daughter would have to take three buses to reach the proposed new campus, at North and Park avenues.

School officials have been struggling to come up with a plan to curb the disruptions - including numerous fires, and a gunshot fired outside during one of the fire evacuations.

Principal Shirley A. Cathorne gave the crowd a progress report. She said the school has had a steady stream of volunteers, including 60 city employees and about 40 members of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The volunteers have helped to monitor restrooms, where many of the fires were set.

Recent forums have given students and faculty a chance to vent, and the ranks of the student advisory board are swelling with new members who want to improve the school.

"We are moving forward," Cathorne said.

School system administrators promised last night to provide money to spotlight Walbrook success stories, such as its debate and athletic teams.

Money has also been set aside for student government activities, including a school newspaper, and basic supplies that are lacking.

"We have to tell our kids that they matter," said Frank DeStefano, the school system's area academic officer for high schools.

DeStefano laid out the plan to move the school's ninth-graders and their teachers to an under-used school building at the corner of North and Park Avenues, just north of Bolton Hill.

The ninth-graders who would be relocated are those who are not repeating the grade, he said.

Those who are repeating ninth grade - about 400 students in all - would be segregated on one floor of Walbrook and tutored in the areas they need help with most, he said.

School officials are also asking parents for approval to turn away any student who is not wearing a uniform or does not have an identification card when they come to school.

"We need to send a message that this is a safe zone for all of our students," DeStefano said.

Drug dealers have gotten friends or students to set fires to facilitate their trade, DeStefano said.

When the school is evacuated, dealers are able to operate more efficiently outside, or slip inside unnoticed, he said.

After a recent fire, school officials found 15 youths in the halls, eight with lighters and two with drugs, Cathorne told The Sun. School officials will do random sweeps of the halls to reduce drug trafficking, she said.

Last summer, when school officials analyzed student records at Walbrook they found many irregularities.

Yesterday, school officials said they had "reclassified" 800 of the 1,200 students who were told they would move to the next grade but did not have the necessary credits.

In some cases, students might have had enough credits to move to the next grade but hadn't taken the courses required for a diploma.

School officials also announced that they will give 54 Walbrook students - who have junior status, but most of the courses needed to graduate from high school - an opportunity to take extra classes so they can earn diplomas this spring.

About 100 seniors who also need only a few credits to graduate will be allowed to come to school for part of the day if they have jobs and can get notes from their employers.

Walbrook junior Ishad Neal, 17, who attended the meeting, said he was upset that officials seem to pay attention to Walbrook only when there is trouble, and was skeptical of promises.

"I won't believe anything they say until [new books and supplies] actually get here," he said.

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