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A gritty school yearning to excel

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The band of youngsters ambles down Carey Street, laughing and kicking bent soda cans in the gutter.

Several of the children disappear into a neighborhood store. The others trudge across the street to school.

They are 30 minutes late, then 35 after they stop to examine a dead rat on the pavement in front of the school building.

The rat lies beside a row of tulips, whose emerging stems nudge aside broken bottles and other trash.

Welcome to Diggs-Johnson Middle School, in the Pigtown section of Southwest Baltimore.

You've heard about tough conditions in public schools -- shortages, violence, troubled students and such. You can find them all at Diggs-Johnson.

You also can find students learning despite the bleak surroundings.

The parking lot is crumbling, a chain-link fence in front of the school is falling down and the name on the building is wrong. In big block letters it says "Carroll Park School." That place closed three years ago.

Physical education classes play kickball behind the school on a paved playground strewn with rubbish. Children's shoes crunch on bits of broken glass.

Alongside the lot is a scraggly hillside, clearly visible from the cafeteria.

Truants from other schools and derelicts sometimes turn this hillside into a grotesque stage: They perform obscene acts and also hurl rocks at the cafeteria.

The rocks carom off the Plexiglas windows like pucks at a hockey game. In the lunchroom, students eat and duck their heads.

Welcome to Diggs-Johnson, where the good kids struggle against a surplus of trouble.

In December, a frantic student ran up to Principal Linda Beechener as she stood outside the front entrance. The child had a black eye and a bloody nose.

Hot on his heels came the assailant, also a student, plus the assailant's mother and sister. When the trio approached the injured youth, the mother shouted, "Get him! Get him again!"

The principal intervened, as she often does, and managed to stop the fight.

She once received a sprained shoulder for her trouble. Now she's learning karate, along with several other faculty members.

"I'm risking my life if I [break up fights involving outsiders]," says Ms. Beechener, 46. "I don't know if they have a knife or a gun. But as long as it's my kids, I'll do it and pray that I don't get hurt."

Welcome to Diggs-Johnson

Welcome to Diggs-Johnson, one of Baltimore's better middle schools, where students and staff must adapt to conditions that most likely would produce a public outcry if found in a suburban school:

* Going to and from school, boys and girls are assaulted and robbed on school grounds, on sidewalks and at bus stops by teen-age thugs who prowl the neighborhood.

* The building is no refuge. Students have been beaten by schoolmates in classrooms, hallways and the cafeteria. Teachers, too, have been jostled, cursed and threatened.

Says guidance counselor Beverly Winter: "There are an awful lot of really nice, decent kids in this school. It's a shame what they have to put up with, the feeling of fear."

* A few students are walking time bombs. Perhaps 10 percent of Diggs-Johnson's 601 students are often disruptive and occasionally violent. Some troublemakers have police records.

* Essential supplies -- from towels to paper clips -- are tightly rationed. In a girls' bathroom, the only available roll of toilet paper is attached to the top of a stall with a heavy chain.

* Many students can't take textbooks out of the building, because several classes share the same books. This means that time is wasted copying homework assignments.

"In 10 years, I've never been able to issue books to students," says Frances Van Cleve, a Spanish teacher.

* In the library, more than half the space for books is empty. A student who wants to read about occupants of the White House might have to settle for "The Arrow Book of Presidents," so old it ends with Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Many of the books "are older than me," says librarian Mary Duginske, who's 43.

* Student lockers remained broken for more than a year, meaning students had to carry coats and other belongings around with them all day.

* There is no heat in the boys' locker room, and the overhead pipes sometimes leak water on students' clothes. In the bathroom there, the urinals overflow regularly, and the toilets are usually filthy.

On one of the two commodes, a used piece of toilet paper was stuck -- it seemed welded -- to the seat for most of the school year.

The woman in the middle

Every workday, Linda Beechener enters this pressure-cooker as principal of Diggs-Johnson.

She's known as a capable administrator and her school is highly regarded. In the past two years, nearly 10 percent of the graduates have gone on to such elite high schools as Polytechnic, Western, City College and the School for the Arts.

Moreover, Diggs-Johnson is one of 14 Baltimore schools in a pilot program allowing them greater administrative freedom from the school system's headquarters on North Avenue.

Diggs-Johnson has 35 computers, one sign of its relative health in an impoverished school system where, overall, children need more of a boost than government provides.

"We can't have throwaway kids, because we're going to end up paying for them one way or other," says Ms. Beechener. "I'd rather educate than incarcerate them."

Roughly 10 percent of the students at Diggs-Johnson are "violent or extremely disruptive" and clearly need intensive psychological intervention, she says. Unfortunately, Baltimore's school system cannot afford to provide it.

Ms. Beechener, herself a product of the city school system, has been running Diggs-Johnson for four years. A graduate of Eastern High, she has spent 23 years in Baltimore schools, 15 as a teacher.

Seventy-five percent of her students come from low-income households. Four years ago, that figure was 50 percent.

To Diggs-Johnson come the children of blue-collar workers, of mechanics and bricklayers and steamfitters who live in the aging rowhouses around the school. And single-parent homes are commonplace.

"It's a needy population," says Ms. Beechener.

"They have so many problems that we need two guidance counselors and a full-time social worker," says the principal. What the school gets is one regular guidance counselor and a part-time, federally funded social worker.

"For the most part, these are good kids whose manners are lacking," says Ms. Beechener. "They do senseless things."

"There is meanness. It's not widespread, but it's there."

In November, a 13-year-old boy tried to set a girl's hair on fire with a cigarette lighter in the school auditorium. She was not hurt; he was arrested.

Even paper clips are saved

In Baltimore, preserving the peace is a big part of a principal's job. So is learning to live with chronic shortages and other exasperating problems that never seem to go away.

"We don't waste supplies," says Ms. Beechener. "The librarian makes the kids give paper clips back to her. We ration paper towels."

As for textbooks, there aren't enough sixth-grade grammar books, science texts or reading books to give one to each child. The books must remain in the classrooms where those subjects are taught.

This makes it difficult to do homework. Sixth-graders have to copy passages from books during class, or teachers must copy the necessary material on duplicating machines that often don't work properly.

Three years ago, the school converted from junior high (grades 7-9) to middle school (grades 6-8).

"We've never received adequate sixth-grade texts or material," says Ms. Beechener. "Each year we're given textbook money, but we never get caught up."

The problem doesn't stop at the sixth grade.

English teacher Pam Phillips says her five seventh-grade classes share one set of texts, meaning the books can't leave the classroom.

Before assigning homework, she faces a monumental job at the copying machine.

"It'd be nice for them to be able to take their grammar books home," says Ms. Phillips. "It would save me the trouble of dittoing it out of the book. It's a complete waste of paper: three or four sheets per kid, times 38 kids per class.

"Overall, you have to run off 150 sheets of paper per class, times five classes," says Ms. Phillips. That's 750 sheets per assignment, in seventh-grade English alone.

Ms. Van Cleve, the Spanish instructor, has one set of textbooks, 40 in all, which are used by 110 students. The books don't leave her room. She treats texts like gold.

"I bring them out of the closet twice a week," she says. Mostly, the students work on ditto sheets made from workbooks.

"Children should have books. But they should also be responsible for them," she says. "I had a kid named Dwayne who took his books home and threw them in his back yard. They were ruined. How many books should we give Dwayne?"

None, unless there are strings attached. The school system says it cannot absorb the cost of lost textbooks. So Diggs-Johnson and other schools try to make parents liable for lost volumes.

A third of the Diggs parents refuse to sign contracts obligating them to $25 to $30 per book.

The situation upsets the principal. "How can children pass without doing home assignments? Some of them use books here after school. Or, if the child seems responsible, I'll put my neck on the line and let them take the book."

Shelves without books

In the school library, 84 of 180 shelves are empty and 43 shelves are half empty. "Pathetic," says Ms. Beechener.

There are 1,975 volumes, including encyclopedias, but the school has room for more than twice that number, says Ms. Duginske, the librarian.

The collection includes:

* A fiction book on baseball, published in 1951.

* "Citizen of the Galaxy" (1957).

* "The Story of Trains" (1963), which has no back cover.

* "Famous Men of Medicine" (1965).

* "Harlem Summer" (1967).

Students want books about sports, but Ms. Duginske has just 25 30. And they want books about art, of which she has one. "The kids think we don't have a good library, that we don't have anything to read, and that it's not important," she says.

Gazing at the empty shelves, Ms. Duginske says: "This is appalling."

She hopes the gaps in the library will stand out. "I don't want a pretty picture. I want an ugly picture. I did it for effect, because we don't have enough books.

"I want people to know there aren't enough books. No one at North Avenue listens to us, but if a parent sees these shelves and screams, everyone listens."

Will the library ever be filled?

"Not in my lifetime," says Ms. Duginske.

Building maintenance is another source of frustration. The school waited months for new door locks for some classrooms and more than a year for the repairs to student lockers.

The school also waited weeks to get light tubes replaced in the gym.

Before Christmas, only two of the 12 overhead lights worked, and the place was so dark it resembled a cave. Workmen were supposed to come during the holidays, but never did.

Finally, an exasperated parent brought his ladder to school and changed the burned-out light tubes. (The school had replacement tubes on hand).

Because of boiler problems, Diggs-Johnson had no hot water for a week following Christmas vacation.

The "faculty lounge" has no window, no heat and no air conditioning. With sparse furniture and cinderblock walls, it resembles a police interrogation room.

The building is not air-conditioned. And some rooms, such as No. 123, a math room, have only one tiny window.

Some call it heaven

Despite the many deficiencies at Diggs-Johnson, many of its teachers say the school compares favorably with their prior assignments.

Jan Blades, a physical education instructor, has taught at four schools in the city. She says Diggs-Johnson is the first where the principal backs teachers in dealing with troublemakers.

Holly McCormick, a math teacher, and Kathy Akalestos, who teaches language arts, also think Diggs-Johnson is a good assignment. "I don't ever want to leave this school," says Ms. McCormick.

The school's teacher-attendance rate is 97 percent, one of the higher rates in the city.

"This is heaven," says Ms. Akalestos.

Not quite. Last year, a student cursed her and didn't wait around for the consequences. "He dove out the classroom window and never came back," she says.

Few chronic offenders bail out that easily. Most wind up on a carousel for malcontents, the school system's practice of transferring suspended students from one institution to another.

Most instructors bemoan the practice, says science teacher Bryant Murphy.

"We're trading each other's troublemakers around," he says. "When we get new ones, they seem to affect the marginal students, the ones who are sitting on the fence. They see new role models."

Why does Mr. Murphy teach?

"You do it for the ones who could go to Harvard," he says. "If you have 30 kids, you do it for the 10 who are going places."

Mr. Murphy says that teachers who go by "Towson rules" won't make it in a place like Diggs-Johnson.

Three years ago, he asked a disgruntled student to pick up a piece of paper. The student grabbed a chair and threw it at him.

The boy missed. The chair broke.

Mr. Murphy saved a piece of it as a memento. That's when he decided to learn karate. Now, he teaches self-defense to the principal and a half-dozen teachers in the gym after school.

When help is busy elsewhere

Who is there to give counseling and support to troubled mainstream students at Diggs-Johnson?

Not Ms. Winter, the school's lone guidance counselor. "It takes almost all of my time working with the eighth-graders, helping them make intelligent decisions about high school," she says.

Not Toyoko Vassil, a social worker for the school system who works at Diggs-Johnson and two other schools. She and other social workers must "give priority to special education students," says Ms. Vassil.

"There are a lot of general-education students whose needs are overlooked," she says.

One of Ms. Vassil's cases at Diggs-Johnson is a 14-year-old boy who enrolled in February. He had been suspended from two other schools. "This is his third school in two years, and in between he was at the Hickey School," she says, adding that such a history of suspensions -- with a stopover in a juvenile institution -- is "not that unusual."

Ms. Vassil makes home visits in such cases, often finding that the parents "are troubled themselves."

A close observer of violence at Diggs-Johnson is Howell Hinson, the school's police officer. He's in his third year at Diggs and has been a member of Baltimore's school police force for 20 years.

"Not too bad"

"This school is not too bad, compared to some middle schools -- no shootings or stabbings," says Mr. Hinson. "Most of our assaults and injuries have been of the non-weapon type."

Overall, he says, "It's just a handful of the students that are trouble. The majority are nice kids. A little loud, but nice."

Mr. Hinson keeps an eye on the scraggly hillside where derelicts and truants from other schools sometimes appear. It's an urban wasteland that includes a vacant lumberyard and some abandoned railroad tracks.

"I'm waiting to find a body up there," says Mr. Hinson.

Once he was walking behind the school building when he surprised a man and woman having sex on the hillside. He told them to leave. "I don't know if the kids noticed it," he says, "But I could see it all."

The hillside is merely a nuisance compared with what can happen just beyond the school's front door. Ms. Beechener and Mr. Hinson say the most dangerous time for students is shortly after dismissal, when children are on the way home.

Nearly every day, says Mr. Hinson, outsiders hang around in the afternoon, waiting for the bell. He shoos them away but they usually creep back.

Before dismissal, says Ms. Beechener, "We pray for snow, rain or ice, or the temperature to drop 30 degrees" as a deterrent to after-school violence.

The principal and her police officer, who is armed with a walkie-talkie and a can of mace, patrol the grounds outside.

"Often our visibility may cool off a situation, but something may still happen six blocks away," says Ms. Beechener.

"Twice a week, a parent comes back here after school with a bloodied kid," she says. "I'd like to think a child who goes through this door with 10 fingers and toes would also come back with them."

As for violence within the school, "The intensity of the fights is absurd," says the principal.

A fight last year is still talked about at Diggs-Johnson. It involved two 200-pound girls and became known as as "The Clash of the Titans." One girl had her shirt and hairpiece ripped off in front of some boys. The assailant walked away with her trophy, a handful of hair.

This school year, a dozen students have been hurt in assaults, mostly punching incidents. The most serious injury was a broken nose.

Suspensions have increased sharply this school year. By mid-April, the school had recorded 50, compared with 40 for the entire 1990-91 school year.

Moreover, by mid-April of the present school year, Diggs-Johnson had taken in 45 boys and girls who had been suspended from other Baltimore middle schools.

"I've gotten kids who were worse than those I've sent out," says Ms. Beechener. "Sometimes I think we ought to keep the ones we have."

The surge in suspensions worries her. "Diggs-Johnson is not Bryn Mawr, but we're not used to all this," she says.

"I was beginning to think it was just us, but then I talked to [other principals] and, guess what? Things are difficult throughout.

"We're just keeping a lid on the situation; it's a Band-Aid approach."

The hope within

Despite the problems, life goes on at Diggs-Johnson and the connections essential to learning do occur.

Says reading teacher Clydia Cofield: "You're instructing amid constant interruptions, and you know half the class isn't listening, when suddenly you see one kid's eyes right on you, waiting for you to move on.

"You teach for that kid."

WHO RUNS THE SCHOOLS?

PART 6: THE LEGISLATURE

The General Assembly -- the Senate and House of Delegates -- has authority to accept or reject the governor's education proposals and to enact legislation of its own affecting local schools.

It also has authority to cut the governor's budget proposals, although it cannot add to the budget.

Despite Maryland's severe fiscal problems, the legislature did not overturn the large increase in state aid to local education required this year by law.

* Where to write: Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Senate President, State House, Annapolis, Md. 21401.

* R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., House Speaker, State House, Annapolis, Md. 21401.

* Sen. Laurence Levitan, Chairperson, Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, 132 James State Office Bldg., Annapolis, Md. 21401

* Del. Tyras S. Athey, Chair S. Athey, Chairman House Ways anMeans Committee, 100 Lowe House Office Bldg., Annapolis, Md. 21401.

This is the sixth of seven reports about educational necessities that are in short supply in many of Baltimore's public schools. The series is based on more than 230 interviews, many of them with children, and on visits to 27 schools over the last four months.

* Today: Life in an urban school.

* Saturday: A school that works.

Worlds apart: city and county middle schools

Baltimore's Diggs-Johnson has more students from low-income housholds than all of these county middle schools combined.*

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Total enrollment

Diggs-Johnson..... ..... 601

Brooklyn Park-Lindale....1,350

Lansdowne..... .... .....648

Ellicott Mills..... .....438

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Students from low-income households

Diggs-Johnson..... ..... 450

Brooklyn Park-Lindale....135

TC Lansdowne..... .... .....233

Ellicott Mills..... .....17

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