Learning the ropes in Harlem Park


For three years, the National Committee for Citizens in Education worked to help 156 families whose children attended Harlem Park Middle School in West Baltimore. The program, "With and For Parents," was financed by the Prudential Foundation. In these excerpts from Network, the committee's newsletter, the director of "With and For Parents" reflects on the experience.

Ms. ------ always apologized for her home when I visited. I was thinking as she did so that nothing wrong with her home was her fault. Everything was orderly; beautiful plants and pictures of all seven children were nicely displayed.

We talked about the rotting front door and how impossible this made it for her to keep the place warm. Besides, she lived in a place where almost constant drug activity was virtually on her front steps. I told her she needed better security. She had not considered that. The next time I saw her she smiled and said, "I did what you told me to do. I got my door replaced. But the landlord raised my rent."

I could not stop thinking how unfair her landlord was. But I couldn't shake the guilt I felt, either.

Lining the streets in front of Harlem Park's miles of row houses are a few thin trees struggling to survive in small dirt squares carved in the concrete and covered with steel grates that trap trash and broken glass. Many of the houses have the traditional marble steps found all over Baltimore. Some are kept sparkling white in the tradition of generations of Baltimoreans. But all around is the pervasive feeling of abandonment. The houses, in various states of ill repair, seem unsuited to providing shelter.

Yet, families do live in these substandard, unhealthy places that offer minimal protection from the elements or crime. For many people in congested urban slums, these brick and mortar boxes are home, and the deprivation of comfort, privacy and security is a way of life.

Side by side with the row houses, some of which bear remnants of former pride of ownership (fragments of imported tiles in the foyers, elaborately carved eaves and stunning floor-to-ceiling windows which are shattered or boarded up), and the churches with which the neighborhood abounds is a proliferation of bars and liquor stores, the only thriving businesses in Harlem Park.

In fact, the Harlem Park Middle School and adjoining elementary school are flanked by liquor stores -- havens for kids hooking school or dropouts looking for a way to fill empty hours. It is disturbing and a bit ironic that a middle school which ranks among Baltimore's highest in daily absenteeism sits by helplessly while its kids slip quietly through the cracks, less than a stone's throw away. Closing these cracks through parent and community involvement was the goal of NCCE's "With and For Parents" project when we arrived in the summer of 1987.

In communities like Harlem Park, a certain level of suspicion and even resentment of new efforts prevails, especially when sponsored by out-of-community organizations, funded by private sources. Most, if not all, programs previously available there were perceived as the type that could be found in any public agency around town and were marked by bureaucratic rigidity and insensitivity to individuals . . .

We knew that in order to convince many parents to become meaningfully involved in their middle schoolers' education, we first had to be accepted by the families to the point were we could visit with them regularly and talk frankly about the important education issues that can profoundly affect a child's future. And we knew we would have to be patient. Education is extremely important in the African-American culture and tradition. Sadly, the quality of education for blacks has eroded to the point where it is difficult for families to see the direct correlation between education and a productive, fulfilling career . . .

Economics are a major factor; when paying the rent and putting food on the table are constant concerns, education understandably takes a back seat. Sometimes doors remain shut to avoid the bill collector, summons servers, social workers and others. Day-to-day survival is all-consuming. And many families object to opening up their homes in order to avoid one more situation in which they expect they will be viewed negatively. People who enter a low-income home for the first time and allow themselves to be appalled at what they see don't have to say a word; their body language says it all. Families feel it and are deeply affected by it.

Additionally, we found that once parents allowed us access to their homes, into their lives, we had to be prepared to be helpful in many ways, including assistance in getting emergency food, housing or other services. This was the only way to fully integrate education into family life.

Safety is another important issue. There is a real fear of knowing too much about your neighbor's business -- which may be illegal -- or laying bare such activity occurring in your own home, creating a sense of isolation even within a congested urban setting. In such a community, there is a thin line between asking questions that demonstrate a desire to be helpful, and "getting into somebody's business."

Histories of bad experiences with the schools, both their own as students and previous encounters on behalf of their children, didn't help, either. We came to understand, early in our effort, the intensity of feelings parents experienced when they had negative encounters with the school staff -- as many had. Discussion of how parents felt about their treatment at the school dominated early conversations. It was as though they had been holding this inside so long, not having an outlet, a sympathetic or at least objective ear.

Learning about how people live cannot be done with piles of demographic data. Inner-city families have grown weary of being counted, categorized and characterized. A high level of mistrust and suspicion prevails among inner-city black parents about how information will be used and whether divulging it will come back to haunt them. A good way to be shut out of a family's life altogether is to start probing in sensitive areas, which vary from family to family, without an invitation. The steady stream of projects, programs and initiatives that have poured into black communities -- with few results to which most residents can relate -- has helped to chisel away at the hope for a better life through outside intervention.

Getting to know a community is hard work. You have to talk to people, you have to spend time there, you have to be willing to put aside stereotypes and deal with people as individuals over time. There were many questions that parents wanted answered before we were welcomed into their homes: who we were, why we were asking so much of them, whether we were on the school's payroll or were church-affiliated or connected with any city or state agency. (We weren't.)

Not all parents and guardians let us into their homes, preferring instead to meet at our office, and some were extremely cautious before finally allowing a visit. (And not all adults who shared responsibility for monitoring and participating in the student's school life were official guardians; often, for example, a grandmother living with a single mother took on this role.) But only one parent out of the initial 156 actually said that she did not RTC want to be a part of our program, and even she changed her mind a few times.

Families accepted us because they believed, as we did, that there was a great deal of work to be done to improve the quality of education and that it was time for them, as parents and influential people in the lives of their children, to be consulted, cooperated with and respected. They believed, too, that the middle school years are critical times, and they trusted that we believed in every parent's importance and value as a partner in the education of their children.

Jocelyn Garlington is writing a guide for educators and program directors who work with inner-city parents. Other Voices earlier published her poetry.

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