Douglass students want attention paid to school

Committee plans to continue effort begun in spring


It's been a tough school year at Frederick Douglass High.

In the fall, the football team was forced to forfeit its first winning season since 1998 over allegations that an academically ineligible student was permitted to play.

In the winter, the West Baltimore school became a political battleground after Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele visited and accused the city school system of shortchanging Douglass students.

In the spring, Douglass turned up on a list of 11 failing city schools that the state was targeting for outside takeovers. Then the principal was removed from her job. And some of the students decided enough was enough.

Seven of them formed a group they call the Student Concern Committee. They want the powers-that-be to know what they can do to really help their school, and why what they've been doing is not helpful.

Group members have gone on television and radio shows, met with administrators and spoken at a school board meeting to get their views across. They say they represent the views of students, as well as teachers who fear they'll put their jobs at risk if they speak out.

Douglass, the alma mater of such luminaries as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and entertainer Cab Calloway, has a proud and storied tradition in Baltimore's African-American community. But the school, with a student body that's still almost entirely black, has resources far inferior to those in the city's elite magnet high schools or in suburban schools.

"It feels like being in segregation," said Lewis Peterson III, 17, a Student Concern Committee member who is also trying to start his own newspaper. He plans to call it The Frederick Douglass Crisis.

Peterson, finishing his junior year, is one of the students who plan to keep the Student Concern Committee going next school year; three of the founding members were seniors who just graduated.

Students on the committee say the school needs more books, band instruments, science supplies and an oven that doesn't burn the cafeteria food, which, they add, is always pizza. A little variety in the menu would be nice, too.

Ebony Peacock, 17, one of the committee's graduating members, wishes that her senior English class had had enough books to go around, and that students could take books home. She had to share copies of Beowulf and The Merchant of Venice with two or three other classmates.

Junior Ignacio Evans, another Student Concern Committee founder, plays the tuba in Douglass' acclaimed marching band. But his instrument is so old he has to tape it together. Also, the biology teacher had to buy all her own lab materials this school year, including frogs and a gecko.

"We don't have a swim team because the pool is broken," Peterson said one recent afternoon, as the group gathered in the cafeteria.

"If we don't have books, how are we going to have a swim team?" asked Evans, 16, who competes in debate and wrestling and was recently part of a project to build a community garden.

The committee would also like some explanation about what happened with the football season and the principal.

Douglass' football team had won the city's Division II championship when an allegation emerged in November that it was using an academically ineligible player. Though nearly seven months have passed since the season forfeiture, students' wounds are still raw.

Graduated senior Edward Pullen, 17, the football team's scholar-athlete, said he's embarrassed to take a tape of himself playing to the coach at Towson University, where he plans to study computer science: "He'll say, `Ohhh. Douglass.' I wouldn't take no tape up there because it would just hurt. All that work I did. ... It feels like all that work went down the drain."

In April, while the students were away on spring break, Principal Isabelle Grant was removed from her job a day after she appeared at an appeals hearing about the season forfeiture. Officials have declined to comment on her dismissal.

At a school where many students have unstable home lives and look to teachers and administrators as surrogate parents, Grant's abrupt departure was a tough blow. Several dozen Douglass students protested outside school system headquarters one late April afternoon. Evans spoke at a school board meeting that night, saying the students wanted a chance to say goodbye.

"She helped me out when my mother left me," he said of Grant. "She extended her arm and was like, `Whatever you need, I'm there.' She pushed the papers so I could become a foster child, and now I am."

He said she believed in students who "come from broken homes or from areas where we're not supposed to succeed."

That brings the Student Concern Committee to another suggestion: The school should offer a pregnancy-prevention program. Peacock said some girls at Douglass want so badly to be loved that they try to get pregnant while still in high school.

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