Douglass wants Steele apology

Alonso says GOP leader broke his word

March 05, 2009|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

City schools chief Andres Alonso publicly asked Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele last night to apologize for making disparaging remarks about Frederick Douglass High School on national television.

A spokesman for Steele, Maryland's former lieutenant governor, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In February 2006, Steele visited Douglass in West Baltimore, holding it up as an example of the failures of urban education and making a personal commitment to turn the school around. Though he has not returned to Douglass since - a spokesman said shortly thereafter that school officials were not receptive to his help - he again said Douglass isn't doing its job during an interview this week on D.L. Hughley Breaks the News on CNN.

But, as both Alonso and Gov. Martin O'Malley noted last night, Douglass has improved significantly since Steele's visit: Its graduation rate went up 14 percentage points last year, from 43 percent to 57 percent.

"I don't think Michael Steele has been here since he came in an election year to demagogue, kick around our children," O'Malley said last night before his town hall meeting at Douglass on education and the economy.

The meeting, the last of five public forums the governor held around the state, was scheduled before Steele's CNN appearance.

Steele's 2006 visit to Douglass was widely criticized as a tactic to embarrass O'Malley, a Democrat who was then mayor and running for governor against Steele's boss, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Steele did not follow through on a list of specific promises.

"Whatever happened to the new computers?" Alonso asked. "Whatever happened to the carpet for the library? Whatever happened to the new textbooks? Whatever happened to the new cafeteria tables? Whatever happened to just showing up ... before you go on national TV and cast aspersions on parents, teachers and students? Not acceptable."

The controversy comes the same week Steele had to apologize to conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh after criticizing Limbaugh's comments about President Barack Obama.

According to a transcript of the D. L. Hughley show, Steele said: "You don't get anywhere without an education. I can take you right now to Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore City, where the educational system that's supposedly training and teaching the future generation of black folks ain't doing that. It's not doing it at all. ... and Republicans aren't running the City of Baltimore. So the question then becomes, how do we as a community become self-empowered to make the system, whether it's run by Democrats or Republicans, work for us?"

During his nearly three hours at Douglass in 2006, Steele grilled then-schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland and then-Principal Isabelle Grant in front of the press about the dismal state of student achievement there. He endorsed an offer by Coppin State University to take over the management of the school.

Four months later, The Baltimore Sun quoted Douglass student Ebony Peacock as saying the school had not heard back from Steele: "We were really excited because he really made it seem like he was gonna help our school. We haven't heard anything since."

Since then, a board of the school's alumni took over governance of the school in partnership with the Talent Development program at the Johns Hopkins University. At O'Malley's urging, Verizon partnered with the school to fund a new computer lab.

Last summer, HBO aired the documentary Hard T imes at Douglass High, which chronicled the school's 2004-2005 academic year.

The documentary "tells us that only one student broke 1,000 on the SAT in 2004-2005, while another scored 440, far below the 850 required to get into college," Alonso wrote in an op-ed piece in The Baltimore Sun in August. "In 2004-2005, 77 of Douglass' 197 graduates (39 percent) applied to institutions of higher education. But three years later, in 2007-2008, 113 of Douglass' 162 graduates (69 percent) applied and were accepted."

Officials said the school added pre-calculus and Advanced Placement in five subjects.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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