Reliving tumult, tension in the city's public schools

Urban Chronicle

December 01, 2005|By ERIC SIEGEL

When Gertrude Williams retired after 49 years as an educator in the Baltimore City Public Schools, Sun education editor emeritus Mike Bowler lauded her as "the most powerful of principals" for her success in bucking one superintendent in getting a private school curriculum approved for Barclay Elementary/Middle School and thwarting another from transferring her out of the school.

Seven years later, Williams has collaborated with Jo Ann Ooiman Robinson, a Morgan State University professor and parent of two Barclay alumni, on an oral history of her years as a teacher, counselor and principal.

Education As My Agenda: Gertrude Williams, Race and The Baltimore Public Schools, just published by Palgrave MacMillan, is an at times inspiring but often maddening look at a half-century of public education in the city through the eyes of one educator. It's the story of one diminutive woman's dedication and determination - against the backdrop of racial change and polarization and amid the often-chaotic system's seemingly constant tension and turmoil.

Now 78, Williams said in an interview this week that she sees a system still beset by instability and underfunding, attributing the latter to a willingness of state politicians to shortchange a system that is mostly black.

"Race is one of the predominant reasons why these schools aren't getting quality money or the students aren't getting quality education," she said.

In addition to edited transcripts of Williams' recollections, each of the book's 10 chapters includes a discourse by Robinson on the social and political milieu of the times and the historian's less personalized account of events drawn from newspaper reports and school board minutes.

And, as the book's subtitle indicates, race is not only not soft-pedaled; it is central to the story.

Having grown up in a working-class but racially mixed neighborhood in Philadelphia, Williams describes her shock at arriving in segregated Baltimore in 1949 to teach in the "colored" division of the city schools. Some of the most compelling reading comes from Williams' account of her early days teaching at Charles Carroll of Carrollton in East Baltimore. It was a former sanitarium that had been turned into a black school, where she found many of the children to be "less than poor."

"I used to keep cigar boxes in the classroom," she wrote. "I'd put the children's names on them. Each box had a washcloth and a toothbrush and toothpaste. If the children came in without their faces being washed and without their teeth being cleaned, I'd just tell them to take their boxes."

Williams was at Charles Carroll when the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision was issued, though she saw little immediate impact in the classroom. She was a counselor at Mordecai Gist in Northwest during the period of 1960s neighborhood racial change.

But the bulk of her career concerns the nearly three decades she spent at Barclay, first as an assistant principal and for 25 years as principal. Her tenure there included the ill-fated federally mandated reassignment of students in 1973 in an attempt to achieve greater racial balance in a system that was 70 percent black, and the racially charged battle two years later to oust black Superintendent Roland Patterson.

"The system never really recovered from the battle of the Patterson days," wrote Williams, who was a supporter of Patterson. "Many parents lost faith in the city schools. ... The general public began to see the Baltimore school system as a lost cause."

Williams received most of her attention and acclaim for her efforts in getting the private Calvert School course of study installed at Barclay in 1990 over the opposition of then-Superintendent Richard Hunter. He had derided it as a "rich man's curriculum," and he lost his job partly as a result of the controversy. The battle came to symbolize bureaucratic intransigence, drawing city-wide attention. It set off another tumultuous decade in city school history that culminated with the city's agreement to share control of its schools with the state in exchange for increased funding.

"Richard Hunter convinced many blacks that we were trying to establish in a public school a private program for the white elite in Charles Village," Williams wrote. "I don't think the issue would have gotten so explosive if Richard Hunter had not been such a divisive person."

The book chronicles the early success of the Calvert-Barclay partnership, and its dissolution six years later. It also delves into her success in fending off an attempt by Hunter's successor, Walter Amprey, to have her transferred.

One of the more trenchant observations comes in the concluding chapter, written by Robinson:

"Even when Barclay student accomplishments were drawing admiring observers from halfway around the world, white middle-class families within walking distance of Barclay did not send their children to the school," Robinson noted. "As a consequence, when Gertrude retired in 1998, Barclay's student population was almost entirely comprised of minorities, and nearly all of them from economically marginal families."

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