City schools seeking helpers

Responding to a teacher assault that made national headlines, Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso is launching a campaign to recruit 500 volunteers for the city schools in the next two weeks.

In a letter e-mailed to 2,500 community members over the weekend, Alonso wrote that "this essential work of making safe schools cannot be done by the administrators, teachers, staff or students at each school alone. I cannot say strongly enough how important it is for families and community members to rally around our schools, our teachers, and our students."

The letter names a Web page where people can sign up to "be a positive presence in our schools," "be a mentor," "help clean around our schools," or "help kids feel safe arriving at and going home from school."

The call to action comes after Jolita Berry, an art teacher at Reginald F. Lewis High School, was attacked by a student in her classroom April 4 and the incident was captured on another student's cell phone camera. A video that was aired on television shows a teenage girl beating a woman lying on the floor while classmates cheer.

The incident has brought widespread attention to the problem of teacher assaults in particular and school violence in general. The city school system has expelled students for assaulting staff members 112 times so far this academic year.

Since the cell phone video of the Lewis attack began circulating on the Internet, the system has had several calls from people saying they want to help. Alonso said in an interview yesterday that the request for volunteers is "an attempt to seize the moment."

Officials are in the process of identifying about 10 schools where dozens of volunteers will be directed. Lewis and adjoining W.E.B. DuBois High are among those that have said they want the assistance.

The schools are being selected based not only on their records of violence but also on student achievement. Violence and low student achievement are often found at the same schools.

While the system will take volunteers wherever they offer to go, Alonso said, "We would want certain schools to be the beneficiary of this public outpouring of support."

Alonso acknowledged that the goal of recruiting 500 volunteers is an ambitious one, but he said meeting the precise target isn't the point.

"We certainly hope for 500," he said, "but what I want is to put a critical mass of people to provide support for schools."

With the end of the academic year fast approaching, officials say they will try to deploy volunteers as fast as possible. The system has set up a centralized call center and Web page to coordinate the effort. It will cover the cost for volunteers to have background checks, as required by law.

System spokesman Michael Sarbanes, who is in charge of parent and community outreach, said his office is reaching out to business and church groups as well as educational organizations to solicit volunteers.

"What I'm finding so far is that people want to help, and they want a concrete way to help," Sarbanes said.

Since arriving in Baltimore in July, Alonso has said repeatedly that the schools will not improve without community investment. But for years, many schools have struggled to attract outside support. And parents have often reported that administrators did not make them feel welcome or needed.

Pat Mohamad, the PTA treasurer at Northeast Middle, said she'll be calling parents at her school to urge them to heed Alonso's call.

"This should have been done a long time ago," said Mohamad, who is a member of the system's Parent and Community Advisory Board. "It's unfortunate that it takes an incident like this."

In light of the publicity surrounding school violence in the past week, Mohamad said she thinks parents will be responsive.

"The sense of urgency, I think, is scaring everybody," she said. "We can't always point fingers, because those kids come from our homes."

Michael Carter, a past chair of the Parent and Community Advisory Board, said he believes parents will step up to the plate now that safety is involved, "as long as we have things for parents to do."

"The overall need of addressing behavior still rests with parents who send their kids to school," said Carter, who is helping the system coordinate the volunteer recruitment. "You can't expect the Baltimore school system to be the social services department, but that's the work they have to do on a daily basis."

Alonso's mass e-mail calling for volunteers also seeks to clarify the direction he's given principals about suspensions. He has urged principals to consider alternatives to suspensions for nonviolent offenses but said there must be zero tolerance for violence.

The e-mail says long-term suspensions in the city schools - "a consequence for serious, violent disruptions" - are up by 7 percent over last year: 1,254 compared with 1,173 at this time a year ago. Meanwhile, total suspensions for all misconduct are down from 13,943 last year at this time to 10,502 this year.

At a City Council meeting yesterday, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke questioned whether small offenses are going unpunished, potentially sending a message to students that misbehavior goes unnoticed.

Calling on the community to volunteer, Clarke said, "Our children in our schools need to know that we are imposing discipline."