A Baltimore School That Works Is Already Missed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We are taking leave of Baltimore, saying goodbye to all of the conveniences and many of the comforts of American life to spend three years in the Soviet Union as correspondents for this newspaper. Among the things we expect to miss most is one of Baltimore's much-maligned public schools.

In more than seven years sharing a job covering education for The Sun, my husband, Will Englund, and I certainly did our share of the maligning -- with good reason. The city's schools do, indeed, miserably fail the great majority of Baltimore's children, who are served up an inferior education that gives them little chance of ever escaping the poverty and despair that assail them every day of their lives.

Yet, amid so much loss there is success. Some of the city's schools do manage to prevail against bureaucratic indifference -- antipathy even -- and the handicaps of sparse budgets and supplies. One of these is Roland Park Public School, No. 233, which our third-grader Kate attended since kindergarten. We will miss it terribly in Moscow, even though we have been assured the Anglo-American School there is outstanding. We're feeling this loss acutely even now, in California, where we have come for three months to study Russian.

Don't let the words "Roland Park" fool you. Throughout the school system and the city, many people assume Roland Park has some sort of privileged status -- more money, more teachers, special favors. Maybe they think that because Roland Park's students perform so much better than students at most (but not all) of the city's other schools -- so much so that it's become a prime recruiting ground for exclusive Eastern boarding schools.

In fact, the school gets only the average allocation, less than at schools where federal money is spent through Chapter I programs for the very poorest students. Roland Park certainly has its share of poverty-stricken children, too. About half of its students are poor enough to qualify for a free lunch.

But the reputation lives on, possibly because "Roland Park" sounds like "rich white" to many Baltimoreans. How wrong that ** is. While the neighborhood the elementary school serves is almost entirely white, Roland Park long ago abandoned its school. Most of the neighborhood's residents are too frightened of the city and its schools to give the public school a chance. Most of the children of Roland Park go to private schools, or families with children move to the county when the children approach age 5.

Even as the school was being abandoned or ignored or resented, it exchanged defeat for opportunity and created something special. A small group of neighborhood residents has always stuck with the school, but when it was threatened with closing because of low enrollment, the school was in effect opened to children throughout the city. In the process, it became a microcosm of the city.

It, like the city, is majority black. But the children of interracial marriages are comfortable at Roland Park, along with white children and Asian children and a small group of new immigrants who speak little English. They are comfortable together in a way they are comfortable almost nowhere else in the city.

Much of this easy mixing is due to a remarkable principal, Evelyn T. Beasley, who every morning stands at the door greeting children and parents to see that the day starts off properly. She never hesitates to force out a teacher who isn't right "for my babies" or to chastise a superior, be it mid-level bureaucrat or superintendent or mayor, who stands in her way. Much of the success is due, also, to the teachers and parents and students, who refuse to give up on good schooling.

I felt our loss of Roland Park most poignantly one evening as I --ed into the school's auditorium-cum-gymnasium, nearly late for school concert because I had to write a story about how the mayor, fed up with the school system and its leadership, had forced out the superintendent. The whole sorry tale was enough to make the most sanguine parent give up hope of ever seeing the school system set to rights.

Just then, the row of 25 tentative third graders took their places to play the violins they had taken up only a few months earlier. Parents throughout the room caught their breath as the bows, poised above the strings, awaited the signal. Then the glorious sawing and scratching began, and the and the exhilaration rose with every note. The room was filled with parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters from all over the city -- black and white, rich and poor, powerful and powerless.

I feel slightly embarrassed to say it, but as I listened to the violins and looked around the room where white couples and black couples and interracial couples and single mothers and fathers were smiling at each other, feeling proud together, sharing accomplishment, my eyes glistened. This, I thought to myself, is what we talk about when we talk about the American dream. Here was a whole room full of different sorts of people who every day drove their children across the city to this school where they hoped to get an education on the way to a better life.

Maybe the moment was so powerful for me because of where we are going, to a place where connections get you farther than your own pluck and willingness to work. Here I was, looking at people from all over the city, children of poverty, children of wealth, children of meter readers and letter carriers, children of doctors and lawyers, children of factory workers, children of powerful state delegates and children of the disenfranchised, all working together for something better.

I would never argue that Roland Park is a perfect school. The music teacher who put on this concert teaches about 250 kids a week. My daughter and her friends race to the bathroom when they get home from school; they hate to go at school because they say it's too dirty. Budget cuts always trim janitors first. The classes are large, of course, and there isn't enough science or art.

We would have our doubts from time to time, as parents always do. The school system's curriculum is terribly academic for young children. Should we have sent Kate to school where kindergartners learn more through play than through the city's endless fill-in-the-blank workbooks? Did the city, in trying to make its curriculum so rigid as to be teacher-proof, prevent children from learning how to think? Would a poverty-stricken school system provide too few enriching opportunities as the years went by? Can any parent ever be entirely guilt-free about any decision regarding his children?

We were reassured again and again by the presence of teachers who didn't let the system oppress them, but most of all by Kate herself. "I can't wait for Friday," she would say. "That's when we play bingo in Mr. Rappa's math class." Or the time she wrote in her second-grade journal, while her dad was out of the country, "No matter where he is, he's always in my heart." Or the day we passed an expensive private school attended by some of her friends and Kate, looking out the window, said, "Mom, you would never make me go to a private school, would you?" Mrs. Beasley loved that one.

Here in California, Kate is finishing the school year in the ultimate middle-class small town. The school system her has 2,400 students -- a kindergarten center, two elementaries, one middle school and one high school. She has a great teacher, and the test scores show Kate's school does pretty well compared to other California schools.

Kate is unhappy. "School here is much easier than Roland Park," she says -- hardly displeasing to an 8-year-old, "but is isn't as much fun." She's bored in class, because her Roland Park class was much farther along.

There's not one black child in her class, which puzzles Kate. She has made some friends, but the other day she said she felt invisible at school. "I think people in California judge you by what you look like outside," she said, "instead of what you're like inside."

Yes, we miss Roland Park. There, Kate began to learn what it meant to be a good citizen of an American city. There, we began to see that the single most important way an average citizen can stave off the ills afflicting America's cities is by sending his children to the public schools of those cities.

It may take a powerful leap of faith, but isn't that what brought all of us to these shores in the first place?

And so we leave Roland Park.

But, as we tell each other again and again, we'll be back.

Kathy Lally, who has been an education writer for The Sun, is preparing for an assignment in The Sun's Moscow bureau.

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