There are other ways to help city kids, Oprah

April 13, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Dear Oprah: I know how you can help Baltimore City public school students without giving money to Baltimore City public schools. I'm sure you can afford the sum I have in mind. You could hock a couple of rings, or some shoes, and make the donation -- and make a difference.

Make a difference without making a donation to the city schools.

You apparently thought about doing that but decided it would be a waste of money. How did you put it for WBAL-TV the other day?

"You might as well pee on it."


Nice touch, O.

Is that the kind of language you use when you visit the provinces? I watch your show from time to time. But I can't say I ever heard you say "pee" on the air. Maybe you were getting a little blue with your language because you were back in Baltimore and feeling that way.

Maybe you were PO'd, O.

Here you are, the billionaire queen of the television universe, returning to the city where your career started 30 years ago, and you realize that, while much has changed, some things have remained the same. Too many public schools still get failing grades, to the point where the state of Maryland wants to assume control of 11 of them.

"We're standing in a city where the dropout rate is atrocious for young black males," you said the other night at The Meyerhoff. "It's 76 percent. That should make you gasp."

Of course, school officials challenge that number and say graduation rates have actually improved.

But don't worry about it, Oprah. Even if your information is a little dated or imprecise, you're not far off.

I looked at a chart from the Maryland State Department of Education. In the four high schools the state proposed taking over, graduation rates for boys and girls in 2005 were 64, 77, 83 and 35 percent, respectively. But overall student achievement was terrible -- for instance, 8.9 percent passed reading at one school, 6.6 percent passed math at another, 4.8 percent passed algebra at another, and 15.9 percent passed English at a fourth.

(How, you ask, are these kids graduating? Good question, O.)

Of course, the Democratic leadership here was insulted that the state wanted to run these schools, which have been failing since at least 1997, so Mayor Martin O'Malley got the state legislature to put the kibosh on takeover. I guess it was an affront to the municipal ego, which is almost as large as the mayoral one.

Now, the city claims it is going to get serious about making changes to improve failing middle and high schools. (I'm sure O'Mayor will be rolling up his sleeves to work on this project between campaign appearances as he runs for governor.)


It's a shame the state takeover didn't go through. If, as a result, more kids get a better education, I don't care who gets the credit -- the city, the state or some nonprofit program. There's room for all kinds of innovation in this beleaguered system. Why not try something different?

I think you might agree with me on that, Oprah.

"What is going on is a crime to the children of this city," you said. "It's a crime. It's a crime that people can't figure out."

I agree, O. But here's my problem with what you said -- it's too easy.

We've all heard the potshots at city schools before. My question is: What are you willing to do about it?

Nobody likes to bring this up much, but the problems of city schools are rooted in poverty: High concentrations of poor children in schools is a formula for failure, and that's been studied and proved. Poor families have fewer choices, so they're stuck.

You say you don't want to give money to Baltimore City schools. You thought about it and decided against it.

OK. Then how about giving some money to, say, the Baltimore chapter of the Children's Scholarship Fund? I think you know about this. If not, ask Stedman about it; he sits on the organization's national board.

The CSF has been around since the late 1990s. When the Baltimore branch rolled out in 1998, it attracted more than 20,000 applicants, the majority of them city public school families. That pretty much proved -- if such a fact needed proving -- that poor parents care about their kids' education.

The CSF provides privately funded, partial scholarships for children from poor Baltimore families so they can attend independent schools, K-through-8, that their parents choose.

It's no free ride. Depending on family income, scholarships cover from 25 percent to 75 percent of tuition, and the CSF portion caps out at $2,000 per child per year. Parents have to pay the rest.

According to Paul Ellis, the executive director, CSF-Baltimore is helping to fund 541 students at 81 private schools this year, but the supply of scholarships can't keep up with demand. Ellis says the waiting list for tuition help has 2,100 names on it. At a maximum of $2,000 per student, it would take $4.2 million to send those Baltimore kids to the schools their parents chose.

You've donated millions to various causes, Oprah. What's another $4.2 million? You're a busy woman. You don't have time to teach. You don't have time to tutor third-graders in reading after school. So put your money where your mouth is -- and your heart, too. Think Baltimore children are being deprived of a good education? Write a check.

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