Willing school helpers: `Tell us what you need'

October 23, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

A day after Baltimore school officials pleaded for outsiders to help them keep school environments safe, a chorus of ministers, business leaders, foundation heads and parents said they would answer the call -- if only they knew how.

"Tell us what you need, and we're here to do exactly what you tell us," said the Rev. Carl Washington of St. Timothy's Christian Baptist Church during a morning visit to Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy.

But school officials have yet to lay out a clear plan to galvanize such assistance. City schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland spoke again yesterday in general terms about what she thinks parents, businesses and others can do, leaving would-be helpers wondering what she has in mind.

One business leader who called a school official yesterday said his call was not even returned by day's end.

Some people question the administration's commitment to boosting involvement. They point to the Office of Parent and Community Involvement, whose staff was slashed from 11 employees to one during recent budget cutting. And some parents have complained of being turned away by schools while trying to volunteer.

Even so, the head of a nonprofit group that studies school violence applauded the plea made by Copeland and school board members Thursday after a student was shot outside one high school and firefighters were called to douse the latest arson at another. More than 40 fires have been set at 14 schools since the start of the academic year.

"There's no magic bullet, but they're really on the right track when they're talking about pulling the community in to help solve the problem," said Beverly Caffee Glenn, executive director of the Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence at George Washington University.

Glenn said school hallways should be flooded with parents and other adult volunteers.

"Send a message to the kids: `We care.' That's why these kids are doing this; they are crying out for attention here. Just because parents are poor or are on welfare, that doesn't mean they can't come in and walk up and down the schools," Glenn said.

Copeland said the school system has received some calls from people offering help. For example, a procurement official arranged for a moving company based near the Thurgood Marshall school complex -- the scene of Thursday's nonfatal shooting -- to have workers monitor halls in the middle and high schools housed there.

But others in the business community remain puzzled by what, if anything, school officials would like them to do.

"We certainly have to know what type of [request] is being made of us," said Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group that drafted a financial recovery plan for the school system last year. "I placed a call to see what thoughts they had. I've not gotten any feedback."

Fry did not say whom he had called.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which has funded school initiatives, said: "We'd have to know what it is anybody wants."

Asked what businesses could do, Copeland said, "We would very much appreciate any time they would want to mentor some young people, help to show them what the career opportunities might be for them."

Fry said his group helped set up a middle school mentoring program. And 900 students are taking part in an entrepreneurial training program this year.

Embry noted that Abell and other foundations have committed $20 million to turn the city's neighborhood high schools into smaller, more specialized learning institutions.

One of the few specific wishes school officials voiced at a Thursday news conference was for businesses to donate cell phones so principals can communicate better during crises.

No one at the school system spoke to Verizon Wireless, which annually donates cell phones to domestic violence agencies.

"We've not been approached," said company spokesman John Johnson. "Do you have a contact there?"

Moments later Johnson called a reporter back and said, "Verizon Wireless is reaching out to Baltimore City Public Schools to see how we might be able to work with them."

Of volunteers, school officials are especially keen on having local community members in halls and classrooms.

"What we're finding is that it's the relationships that are so important, community members who know the students," Copeland said. At Walbrook, area ministers had a "powerful influence on the behavior of the students."

School officials acknowledge that they might have cut too many hall monitors, school police officers and other nonteaching jobs to close a $58 million budget deficit. It is critical for adults to be visible, Copeland said.

"Just to be an adult presence in the schools, to frankly show the students ... that we value them, that we are here on the site to help you out," she said.

Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, agreed that parents should play a larger role:

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