`Our kids are screaming for someone to save them'

Parents and educators urge Dixon to address school issues such as security and planned closures

February 25, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,[Sun Reporter]

Johnny Dow gets worked up when he talks about his son's school, where he volunteers several days a week.

Sometimes the cafeteria runs out of food. There aren't enough computers. Science students don't participate in hands-on experiments.

Yesterday, he had the opportunity to share his concerns with Mayor Sheila Dixon.

The mayor listened to parents and educators enumerate grievances as part of a morning workshop at the Baltimore City public school system headquarters on North Avenue that attracted about 200 participants. Those who spoke gave firsthand accounts of a school system in distress. They expressed worries about schools closing, relocating or adding grades. Many said they feared that their children would fall through the cracks.

"I think that it's important that we have a dialogue," Dixon said. "We know what the most important things in our lives are, and that's our children."

Audience members clapped and called out in agreement as Dixon, a former teacher, discussed some of the problems that afflict the school system.

"Our kids are screaming for someone to save them," Dixon said. "We have to do a better job at that."

The mayor addressed participants at the Parent and Community Leadership Development and Resource Session. The workshop was one of three that the school system's Office of Parent Involvement and School, Family and Community Connections will facilitate this school year, said director LaVerne Nicholson Sykes.

Parents praised the mayor for listening to their concerns, although some questioned whether she would be able to bring about real change. Many of the issues that concern parents most -- such as a plan to close or relocate several schools -- must be decided by the school board, Dixon said.

The board is scheduled to vote on the matter Tuesday.

Charles Eisler, a physical education teacher at Thomas G. Hayes Elementary, one of the schools slated to be closed, said he and other faculty members are scrambling to draw up a proposal to save the school. He learned from a newspaper article last week that some schools might be able to stay open if they fill unused space with community services.

Dixon urged Eisler to speak with George M. VanHook Sr., a school board member who attended the workshop.

Parents and grandparents pleaded with the mayor to address various problems. Some demanded more security, complaining that their children were being harassed. Others worried that community programs could bring danger and disruption into schools. Some detailed a desperate search for help for their troubled children. Many wondered how to get other parents engaged in schools.

A grandparent of a Franklin Square Elementary student read from a list of concerns in a quavering voice. The windows lack blinds, the electrical system needs an upgrade and the school is understaffed, she said.

Eleanor Nichols, who has taught in city schools for 30 years, said that she is concerned that bright students are being ignored as teachers struggle to control the most troubled children.

"We have been sacrificing our gifted and talented students, our students who have been doing the right thing, because of those problem students," she said to Dixon. "So much of our resources are spent on disruptive students."

Nichols is an instructional support teacher at William H. Lemmel Middle, a school that she and her five children attended. Her youngest daughter is enrolled in the gifted and talented program.

Later, at a meeting for those involved in schools in the north and northwest, Nichols expressed her frustrations with the school system. "We have tried to initiate programs, and every time we get something set up, Baltimore City dismantles it."

Nichols said she doubted whether the mayor would be able to resolve the school system's problems.

"It might look good as a PR gesture, but is it really going to get results?" she asked.

Dow, who volunteers at Cross Country Elementary, where his son is a student, drew cheers when he said schools need more male volunteers. He said that he was impressed by the mayor's presence.

"She's really showing an interest in our schools," he said.

Blondelia Caldwell, the grandmother of a student at George G. Kelson Elementary, said that it would take more to fix city schools.

"I don't think there's going to be a change until there's an outcry from parents," she said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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