Found: one reborn school Steuart Hill's principal tugs her flock to success

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some don't know their names or ABCs while others can't tell red from blue.

Few ever heard of "Goodnight Moon," the bedtime book.

Others breathed lead paint dust in rundown rowhouses. Some are the first crack babies to put on a backpack.

These are the children who come to Steuart Hill Elementary School to begin their education. By all measures, they are among the most difficult kids to teach, the kind of inner-city youngsters who fail again and again.

But this is a success story.

Three years ago, Steuart Hill reading scores were the lowest among Baltimore's 122 elementary schools. One in six children didn't come to school. Dealers hawked drugs on a playground covered with broken glass. Drunken fathers lingered in the hallways. Parents slapped children in the classroom; teachers sometimes whacked them with rulers.

Today, the kids at Steuart Hill read as well as or better than most youngsters their age in city schools. Nearly 94 percent attend school regularly. Children frolic outside on the new, bright-yellow slides and jungle gyms. Some parents volunteer in classrooms while others study for their GEDs in the school basement.

This is a story about the creative use of money -- though not in lavish amounts -- to give children a good foundation for their risky climb through the Baltimore school system.

It is a story about the hopes and dreams of innocent children.

It is a story about Goldye Sanders, a demanding principal with asimple yet unwavering vision -- that teachers will teach and children will learn.

Seven-year-old Torrance sits on the bench outside Ms. Sanders' office. A constant troublemaker, he has landed at the office again for hitting a classmate.

"Do you want to tell me about it?" Ms. Sanders asks.

"My mommy went away one day. I went to live with my aunt," he begins, sobbing. "I didn't come to kindergarten much. I want my mommy."

"Do you know where she is?" Ms. Sanders asks quietly.

"She's in jail. I want my mommy back."

"I understand that you want your Mommy, Torrance," she says."But that's no reason to fight in school. Do you understand, Torrance? You cannot fight in school. Do you understand?"

Torrance nods, still sobbing.

"Do you want to write your mommy a letter?" she asks, touching him gently on the shoulder. "Would that make you feel better?"

He takes a piece of notebook paper, sits at the conference table and slowly begins to print.

"Dear Mommy. I . . ." and he stops. "Is 'I' upper case?" he asks, his eyes wide. Then he offers this:

"My mommy said if someone hit me first, I'm supposed to hit them back."

"I wish . . ." he continues the letter, sounding out the "W".

L "I wish you come home this Friday. Love, Torrance. xoxoxox"

Ms. Sanders walks outside her office. Another child is waiting on the bench.

A big school, a big task

Goldye Sanders didn't want to come to Steuart Hill.

She'd spent three years at Morrell Park Elementary, a tiny school in West Baltimore where children achieved and parents were motivated. But in 1989, school headquarters wanted Ms. Sanders to tackle a larger school.

Located on the edge of historic Union Square in West Baltimore, just a mile west of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Steuart Hill is a three-story, brick and concrete building that stretches the entire block of Gilmor Street between Lombard and Hollins. It is one of five schools serving only pre-kindergarten through second grade children.

More than 85 percent of Steuart Hill's students qualify for free breakfast and lunch. In contrast, most of the children who live across the street in the spacious renovated rowhouses facing Union Square attend private or parochial schools -- as do one in six children who live in Baltimore.

In the heyday of classrooms with no walls, Steuart Hill was hailed as one of the city's first "open space" schools. But the educational wonder of the 1970s has become an albatross for teachers who struggle with easily distracted children. Voices intermingle across classrooms separated only by low bookshelves. With more than 600 pupils, Steuart Hill was twice the size of Morrell Park Elementary -- with 10 times the problems.

When Goldye Sanders arrived, layers of dirt covered the floors; dingy beige walls darkened hallways. Second-graders still couldn't read first-grade primers, and first-graders struggled with kindergarten books.

Behavior problems such as Torrance's were so common that 6-and 7-year-old children were routinely removed from school.

"I came in tears"

"I came in tears," Ms. Sanders recalls.

In addition, nearly half the teachers had asked to be transferred from Steuart Hill the year before, leaving the school with 24 new, inexperienced teachers.

"It had a reputation as a place you didn't want to be assigned," recalls Pat Sheafor, speech pathologist at Steuart Hill since 1984.

But there was hope.

In the mid-1980s, the highly touted Success for All reading program had been established at Steuart Hill. Colorful, interesting books -- not just school-issued primers and readers -- filled shelves in every classroom. Tutors worked with struggling children.

Most importantly, federal money for Steuart Hill was rising dramatically. And, because of the city's new school-based management system, Goldye Sanders had control over how she spent the funds.

"I wanted to make this a place parents felt good about, a place where kids would want to come and teachers would want to stay," she says.

Within three weeks, she fired a custodian who came to work drunk and two others who didn't want to clean. She hired new custodians and painters who brightened hallways with pale yellow paint.

Later, she added two teachers, which reduced class size to 18 in first grade and 22 in second grade. She hired a full-time social worker, a counselor and a librarian. And she extended the kindergarten day from noon to 2:45 p.m. so that children would be better prepared for first grade.

But there were five inexperienced kindergarten teachers just out of college. In a controversial move, she shifted a teacher-tutor from the school's reading program and directed her to help the new teachers full time. She added a second master teacher to help new teachers.

"She's been a supporter of teachers, a go-getter for children," says Dorothy Nelson, a teacher at Steuart Hill since 1980.

Dangers and hugs

In a system where aggressive principals compete for limited dollars, Ms. Sanders fights tenaciously. Last summer when Steuart Hill was threatened with the loss of federal money, she stayed on the phone practically every day, terrified to even take a vacation.

"I go after everything I can get for these children," she says.

Herself the mother of two children, ages 8 and 18, Ms. Sanders walks through the school, pausing to hug a child, to admonish one for yelling or running, or to praise someone for little courtesies.

Behind the door of the peach-colored office that she painted herself, she listens to mothers who can't quit their drug habits and those who can't cope with their children.

Though the school doors are kept locked, sheltering Steuart Hill children from an often violent neighborhood, outside problems sometimes spill over into the building.

In November, drug dealers began firing at each other on Steuart Hill's playground, sending teachers and children running for safety. But parents say Ms. Sanders reacted openly and calmly, minimizing the emotional trauma the incident might have caused.

During the day, she moves from classroom to classroom, making mental notes about a teacher who needs help controlling a class, or another who isn't presenting material on the blackboard effectively.

PD To a largely young and enthusiastic staff, her message is clear:

"Unless you're working to be totally involved with the child, this is not the place for you."

Ms. Sanders has pushed out several teachers who resisted help.

By the end of 1989-1990, her first year, second-grade reading and math scores had climbed substantially. Both, however, were still below the citywide average. Worst of all, too many children weren't coming to school. On a given day, 15 percent -- or 100 of the children -- were absent; some missed as many as 60 days during the year. For an elementary school, Steuart Hill continued to have one of the worst attendance records in the city.

In an exceptionally large school district, encompassing more than three square miles, little children sometimes walk a dozen blocks to school, often alone or with older brother or sisters, themselves only six or seven. They pass boarded up houses, drug dealers and alleyways littered with needles.

"Getting them here is a real struggle," says Ms. Sanders. "I know if they're here we can teach them, but it takes time and money to get them here."

Two years ago, Ms. Sanders hired four parents to track down truant children. The workers are not college graduates; several didn't even finish high school. But they know the neighborhood and how to talk with parents. The workers cajole, listen to problems, threaten to take parents to court -- and do.

"Sometimes the mom is having a hard time just making ends meet. Sometimes she's too pepped up on drugs to take the child to school," says Barb Alston, one of the workers.

Five-year-old Corrine was the kind of child you saw today then not again for another week. Her mother was a single parent, with younger children, who said it was too difficult to get Corrine to school.

"We went to the home, sent letters and went to the home again,"Ms. Alston says. "Now she comes all the time."

Sometimes, a child needs more help than just getting to school.

This school year, one 6-year-old girl rarely came to Steuart Hill. When she did, she was dirty and so distracted she paid little attention in class. Attendance workers found her living in a crack house with her mother and grandmother.

Ms. Sanders summoned the mother to school.

"She came in thin as a rail, dirty, unkempt and crying," Ms. Sanders recalls. The school social worker immediately alerted the city's Protective Services division. The girl was removed and placed in foster care, the grandmother arrested and the mother placed in drug treatment.

For the first time, the child came to school neat, clean, her hair combed. Her attention seemed to increase, Ms. Sanders says.

"Our little people are coming here carrying burdens so great, but they learn against all odds," says Ms. Sheafor, the speech pathologist. "When the social problems were not being addressed, though, our kids didn't make progress."

It's all part of the cost of education: the recognition that children who are physically and emotionally unhealthy don't learn very well. And those who skip school don't learn at all.

It was to address those problems that Ms. Sanders got the full-time social worker and counselor. Along with the attendance team, they cost more than $100,000. It is a "luxury" Steuart Hill can afford largely because of federal money.

Federal help triples

Most elementary schools in Maryland receive federal money known as Chapter I. But about three dozen Baltimore City schools, with the greatest number of low-income children, get substantially more. This school year, Steuart Hill received nearly $900,000, triple the amount received five years ago.

But the infusion of federal dollars barely brings the school's spending up to the statewide average of $5,460 per pupil.

"Even with all the federal money targeted at them, schools with the greatest needs just barely keep up with statewide spending," says Judson Porter, budget officer for the Baltimore City schools.

And they don't come close to the $7,213 that a wealthy jurisdiction such as Montgomery County spends per pupil.

The evidence of the money shortage is clear.

At Steuart Hill, the gymnasium remains dark most of the day, a child's playroom haunted by an eerie silence. A single poster on the wall reads "Teamwork is our strength." There's only enough money to provide gym every other week.

While the school now has a full-time librarian, its collection of 6,000 books falls way short of the nearly 14,000 volumes needed to meet state library standards. Few classrooms have their own computers.

Still, the extra money has made a significant difference.

Because children stay in school longer, with more individual attention, there are substantially fewer speech-development problems, says Ms. Sheafor. Many children are hearing adults read to them, or converse with them, for the first time. With the help of private grants, the school also teaches parents how to read to their children.

When 7-year-old Sheena Gamble transferred from another school Steuart Hill three years ago, her skills were so poor that she had to repeat part of kindergarten.

For the next two years, she was helped by a tutor. Now, she reads above grade level.

Every class in the school reads from 8:45 a.m. until 10:15. First-graders go to a room in the basement where they write phonetically on two dozen computers. Five reading specialists work with children like Sheena.

By this year, reading and math scores had progressed so dramatically that Steuart Hill second-graders were reading as well or better than most second-graders in Baltimore and doing well above average in math.

Both parents and teachers give the school high marks.

"This is a place our children want to come to," says Toloria Spruell, a parent volunteer.

High expectations for teachers and students have made the difference, says reading specialist Dorothy Nelson.

"People have a tendency to judge children by their environment and not expect them to excel," she says. "Ms. Sanders believes these children can succeed."

Pockets of success, like Steuart Hill, exist throughout the city school system. But that success hinges not only on money and how it is spent but also on the strength of the principal and staff.

Because the system does not bring together the critical elements, Baltimore schools remain uneven in quality. Moreover, there is no reward for schools that rise above the norm -- and no punishment for those that do not try.

Little grads with dreams

The second-grade children leaving Steuart Hill this month are Goldye Sanders' first "graduating class."

In neat cursive paragraphs, they write about their dreams of ending crime and homelessness, about healing sick people and someday teaching children like themselves.

Tiara Lee writes: "I dream that some day I can be a nurse and help people be healthy and they will not have to worry about food and close for their baby and thierself."

And Eugene Chase writes: "My dream is that other people would not shoot other people."

When they said goodbye to Steuart Hill on Thursday, many of the second-graders cried. It was a simple reaction that comes with change. But in all their innocence, they cannot understand their loss.

At Franklin Square Elementary, five blocks away, they may find themselves in a classroom with 35 children and one teacher. The library often remains dark since the media specialist visits the school just once a week. Broken glass litters the playground, which doesn't even have a swing.

"These little kids are hyped up on life. They need inspiration, but they get less and less as they go along," says Steuart Hill custodian Donald Green as he watches children running on the school playground. "Unless they get something, they're gonna be wasted."

tTC If the current grim statistics for Baltimore schools are any indication, half of Steuart Hill's "Class of 1992" won't finish high school; one in six won't even make it through middle school.

But Goldye Sanders is convinced that her graduates will beat the odds.

After all, she says, these children have learned to enjoy school, to read and to believe in themselves.

"We have tried to give them a place where they are seen as important people, a place where they are cared for."

Most importantly, she says, "we have given them a place where we believe they must -- not can but must -- achieve."

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