Listen, and act

October 24, 2004

THE CONTAGION of fires in Baltimore high schools -- punctuated Thursday by the double shooting at Thurgood Marshall -- demands immediate action. School system officials say budget cuts have left the schools understaffed -- which is right, as far as it goes. They have called on community and civic organizations to help out -- which is a good idea, as far as it goes.

But the heart of the matter is that there is a strong sense of alienation among many of the students at the city's neighborhood high schools.

Part of it is the schools' fault; part of it is the fault of the communities and families from which these teenagers come.

A few weeks ago, when trouble was first reported at the Walbrook High Uniformed Services Academy, the city responded by ensuring a steady police and fire department presence. This may have been the correct thing to do, right off the bat, in order to put a lid on the disorder -- but quickly following that there must come a more significant transformation. A good high school is not an armed camp but a community.

Students must be given a reason to "buy in" to their schools; years ago, this was called fostering school spirit. Part of this comes from simply showing students respect by keeping their schools in decent physical condition. When a building is already dilapidated, as Kirk Sykes of Advocates for Children and Youth points out, it's a lot easier to spit in the halls.

Second, principals and other administrators must demonstrate -- over and over again -- that they truly want to hear what students are thinking, that they value students' input.

Third, the system must identify interested parents and community groups, and, again, reach out to them and listen.

But the burden is not all on the schools. The incidents of the past few weeks show that urban schools are called upon to deal with problems that barely exist elsewhere. Parents need to demand as much of their children as they do of the schools. Civic groups must understand that neighborhoods won't improve if they lose a generation of children.

After the fresh paint and new door locks, what are the next tasks? Conflict resolution and problem-solving classes, and the teaching of basic social skills to those who need them. This is not a fleeting or merely unfortunate crisis -- but its solution could be a learning opportunity for all concerned.

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