A Baltimore public education that nourishes success

If enough middle-class students can be drawn, great things are possible - even here - as shown by one reporter's family experience in local schools.


In the hallway of our son's school is the same kind of bulletin board found in many high schools every spring, the one listing college acceptances.

It's an impressive sight. There's a nice cross-section of Ivy League schools - Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania. There are top liberal arts colleges: Williams, Wesleyan, Haverford, Oberlin, Bowdoin, Bates. And there are places like M.I.T., Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, Emory, Duke, University of Virginia, University of California, Berkeley.

There's a long list of seniors' names under Johns Hopkins, and, of course, the University of Maryland, College Park; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and the whole panoply of wonderful choices offered by American higher education.

In fact, it is hard to imagine any school in Baltimore that would have a more impressive bulletin board in what has become, unfortunately, a competitive enterprise.

What many might find surprising is that this list of prestigious colleges and universities is in a Baltimore city public high school. Today, when our younger son graduates from Polytechnic Institute, our family ends a successful decade-and-a-half relationship with the much-maligned city schools.

It has not been a perfect relationship, of course. The fit among students, parents and schools never is. There have been some iffy teachers and questionable calls over the years. But it has been a good, solid and productive relationship that provided our sons with top-notch educations and entry into the elite levels of higher education.

This from a frequently criticized school system that sometimes seems to be known only for low achievement levels, under-qualified teachers and violent students - with education, at best, a haphazard byproduct.

Certainly, that is the experience for some who attend city schools. But it has not been ours, nor is it the experience for hundreds of city families every year.

What the educational careers of our kids and their peers show is that if you give the city schools middle-class kids, which the highly rated suburban systems - places like Howard and Montgomery counties - are full of, they turn out a fine finished product, on par with any in the state - maybe the nation.

The problem is that Baltimore's public schools are full of poverty. Virtually every educational study shows that poverty is the most significant indicator of academic troubles. For instance, there is a lot of controversy over the importance of the SAT tests, but no one disputes that their scores correlate fairly directly with household income.

So the crucial raw material is a critical mass of middle-class students. As urban expert David Rusk pointed out in this section recently, whenever a school anywhere in the country gets a significant majority of poor students - those who qualify for federally subsidized free lunches - it has academic problems. This is hardly surprising, because these poor students are likely to have distractions that interfere with their studies, and to come from families and communities where academic achievement is not necessarily an admired ambition.

But, as Rusk notes, when you get a majority of middle-class kids in a school - we're not talking rich kids, just those whose families can afford to feed them lunch - studies show that the poor kids in that school do better.

The problem in places like Baltimore is developing that critical mass of middle-class students. It's difficult to make your child be one of the first, and that is why so many young, middle-class families flee the city when their children reach school age.

It is a choice we didn't face - though, to be honest, back then we didn't realize how crucial it was. Our edge-of-Hampden house gave us access to the Roland Park Elementary School, one of the few in the city that did not have a majority of students qualifying for subsidized lunches.

Nowadays, people say, "Well, of course you could go to public schools - you were in the Roland Park district." That was not the case in 1990, when our older son was about to enter kindergarten. All we knew is that we liked living in Baltimore, we couldn't afford private school, and, indeed, we thought it would be good for our boys to get a public education with all the benefits of a diverse student body that mirrors the society they will enter as adults.

This was especially important to their father, as I was a product of segregated schools in the South, a policy that meant I was prohibited from getting to know half the population of my city. I did not want my children similarly handicapped.

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