Prayer service at city school called improper

A Baltimore principal's decision to use prayer in preparation for recent statewide tests is drawing criticism as improperly mixing religion and public education.

For two years, prayer services have been held at Northeast Baltimore's Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School as the Maryland School Assessments, a standardized test for third through eighth grades, neared. Fliers promoted the most recent event, on March 5, as a way to "come together, as one, in prayer and ask God to bless our school to pass the MSA."


Asked about the event, city school officials said they would investigate. In a prepared statement, the school system said that, "while we as a district understand that prayer plays an important role for many in our school communities … it is not appropriate for public institutions of education to promote any particular religious practice."

An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, called the event a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits organized prayer in public school settings.


"It's not even a close call," ACLU attorney David Rocah said. "The whole flier is clearly conveying a religious message, overtly proselytizing, and somebody should have known better."

Jimmy Gittings, president of the city principals' union, said he supported Principal Jael Yon, "an exceptional principal trying to do what's best for our children in the Baltimore City school system."

Gittings added, "The only individuals I hold accountable for these injustices for Ms. Yon are the narrow-minded politicians from some 50 years ago, for removing prayer from our schools. Once prayer was removed from our schools, the respect for our teachers and administrators has been increasingly out of control."

Dating back to the 1960s, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled prayer in public schools unconstitutional. Two landmark cases, in 1962 and 1963, established the current prohibition on state-sponsored prayer in schools. Moreover state-run schools cannot promote or inhibit religion, or hold prayers that are sectarian in nature. The only prayer that is constitutional is private, voluntary student prayer that does not interfere with the school's educational mission.

The 30-minute, voluntary prayer service this month at Tench Tilghman, in the 600 block of N. Patterson Park Ave., marked a culmination of Saturday classes the school has held to provide additional preparation for the Maryland School Assessments. The flier, which included images of praying hands and cited common Christian Bible verses, was distributed to staff to circulate to the school's 400 students and their families.

Yon was asked by parents at the school to hold the Saturday classes, as well as the prayer service, according to Gittings. He said Yon "was doing what she thought was right."

Yon, who is in her second year at the school, declined to comment. Gittings said he was speaking on her behalf.

Gittings, a proponent of prayer in schools, said he fully supported Yon's actions. He said he was aware that it wasn't constitutional, but he still believed in the message.


Local officials said they will use the incident as an opportunity to emphasize to school leaders appropriate school-sponsored events. The school system declined to comment on whether Yon received any disciplinary action, citing its policy of declining to address personnel matters.

After seeing the flier, Rocah said the event violated constitutional provisions that prohibit organized prayer in public school settings and the promotion of an individual religion. He said some phrases were clear indicators of Christian beliefs: "He will do it again" and "All things are possible."

"The implication is: believe in God, and you'll succeed," Rocah added. "I'm sure there are plenty of people who believe that, but I would hope that teachers and administration would be focused on teaching the students the necessary material. There's no substitute for that."

According to some Tench Tilghman parents, Yon did not lead the communal prayer service, but prayed with the group. They defended the event, saying a gathering of parents and school administrators who care about students is the only tool they have to instill confidence in students.

Glenda Shepperson, a parent of three Tench Tilghman graduates and a fourth grader at the school, said the prayer service was identified by the school and the community as the best way to encourage students. She attended last year's service also.

Shepperson said she, her son, grandson and nephew joined about 25 other students and 30 parents in praying for health and peace of mind on the standardized tests. She said the group prayed for "our children for testing, the families, and to make sure that everyone stayed healthy and kept their minds focused."


She added, "We really want to embrace our kids, and let them know that we need to pray together and stay together to make them successful. If this is what makes our children serene and peaceful, and in a healthy environment, then so be it."

LaTonya Greene, a parent volunteer at the school and mother of four students, said, "A lot of our kids have a lot of problems, and sometimes the school is their safe haven. I see what they go through every day, and sometimes you need to just pray about it."

Other city schools have held special events to prepare for the Maryland School Assessments.

At George Washington Elementary School, for example, students and faculty created a rap video called "My Pencil." More than 17,000 people had viewed the video last week on YouTube.

George Washington's principal, Amanda Rice, said finding creative ways to lift spirits and blow off steam makes a difference as students near the test. She said the staff, parent-teacher organization and family council begin brainstorming for appropriate motivational strategies at the beginning of the school year.

"It's very important," Rice said. "The stakes are higher; our kids are exposed to more and we have to meet them where their interest is currently at — pizza parties and stickers are not enough."


Jessica Shiller, education policy director for Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit organization that monitors Baltimore schools, said all the special test preparations speak to a larger issue: an over-emphasis on standardized testing.

"The issue for me isn't the religion at all," Shiller said. "It's that there's so much pressure on schools to get their scores up for fear of punitive consequences, that there are these lengths people at schools feel that they need to go to in order to get their kids pumped up to do well on the test, because the test has become the end-all, be-all for learning.

"Whether it's prayer or the video, or the pep rallies, it's the mass hysteria because they're all scared."