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Looking to kids to lead schools out of the slide


We start with a fight in the school gym, which is where fights have started since the very dawning of gyms. This white kid, Chris Maboe, goes up for a rebound with this black kid, Kevin Leach, already reaching for the ball.

Somebody throws an elbow at close range. Somebody else throws a name.

"Gonna get my cousin," says Maboe. The cousin is older and stronger.

"Gonna get my friends," says Leach. The friends are larger in number.

Instead, as word of the confrontation spreads through Robert Poole Middle School, somebody gets Jack Zimmerman. You would love this kid. He's a seventh-grader who looks like Peter Pan but talks like a shrink.

"You hear these disputes," Zimmerman, 12 years old, was saying yesterday, "and in the beginning you think, 'Uh oh, this one's too much.' You know, it starts over one thing, but the longer you talk, the more you find out it came from something else."

Chris Maboe, blond hair slicked back, nods his head. It wasn't the rebound in the gym that made Kevin Leach and him fight, he says. It was race. Sometimes it happens this way, Jack Zimmerman says. Kevin Leach says nothing at all. He's home in bed with the chicken pox.

But Maboe is here and Zimmerman, who negotiated a peace agreement, and the fight in the gym ended so beautifully that the people who run the city's public schools trotted them out to take a few bows yesterday at Mergenthaler High School.

It was a press conference billed as a Safe Schools Update. It's one year since Dr. Walter Amprey, the superintendent, vowed to make the atmosphere of learning less violent, and yesterday the schools gave themselves a report card: On balance, somewhat improved.

Out came a parade of officials -- principals, teachers, counselors, the chairperson of the Hall Patrol Committee, for heaven's sake -- all saying the same thing: We're working things out. Don't quit on us.

It was, in its way, rather touching. For six hours every day, the schools take in every kid coming out of a broken home or a bad neighborhood, and they try to perform the complex act of civilizing them before handing the kids back to these malignant surroundings for 18 hours a day. Then everybody looks at the reading scores, or the latest figures on criminal acts, and the schools take abuse as though they operated in a complete social vacuum.

And so, on days like yesterday, they feel the need to explain themselves, and they also trot out the kids such as those from Robert Poole Middle School. This is important, as Poole has had its flirtations with the kind of racial tension which drove two generations of middle-class people, black and white, out of the city.

Those remaining have got to learn to get along with each other. So there was much talk yesterday about something called conflict mediation, where fights are worked out not by teachers but by students like Jack Zimmerman, counseled in helping their classmates work things out.

"Sometimes," Charlotte Brown said, "it's a matter of perceptions."

She is principal at Dunbar High, and yesterday she stood in a corner of this room at Mervo and talked about changing people's minds.

"You know," Brown said, "people have this perception of Dunbar as a tough place. But it's one of the safest schools in the city. We have almost no incidents of trouble. But we sit in a community where there are housing projects, and crime, and people assume things are bad inside the school, too."

And that was yesterday's message. Everybody should stop running to suburbia. For reference, see Jack Zimmerman, and the white kid Chris Maboe and the black kid Kevin Leach, as soon as he gets over the chicken pox.

"Kevin and I became really good friends," Chris Maboe said yesterday. "We talked about a lot of stuff, and we worked things out. Now, we hang out together at school."

That's the sort of talk to warm people's hearts. All mention of a city renaissance has been put on hold lately, but it was fraudulent, anyway, if it didn't include the rebirth of schools.

They're the future. At last look, the future was still iffy, but for a moment yesterday, the school people showed us a few of their nice programs, and a few kids to cherish, and it gave you a glimmer of hope that maybe we can still find our way out of this long and disastrous slide.

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