Teaching corps recruit steps into Baltimore's different world


Alexander Ross starts a new job tomorrow that he knows could swallow him whole.

At 8:30, he'll greet 30 or more sixth-graders in Room 309 of Booker T. Washington Middle School in inner-city Baltimore. Thus will begin Mr. Ross' career as a teacher.

Mr. Ross is 22, a baby-faced, soft-spoken young man just three months out of Northwestern University, near Chicago. His students -- those who haven't been held back -- will be 12 and 13, charged with the electricity of early adolescence, all of them ebony to Mr. Ross' ivory. Statistics say half of them will not be at Booker T. when school ends next June.

Will Mr. Ross be there? He thinks so. Henry Adams said a teacher "affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." Alec Ross says Room 309 "is one of the few places in the world where I can have tremendous personal influence, tremendous relevance, because I'm going to have well over 100 students for whom, if I fail, they fail."

Mr. Ross is one of 19 young men and women entering Baltimore classrooms this fall in Teach for America, a 4-year-old national tTC program that recruits top college graduates to teach in some of America's most troubled schools -- without education degrees and with only six weeks of summer training. If they fulfill a two-year commitment, corps members will earn a Maryland teaching certificate.

There's a measure of missionary zeal at work here, but Teach for America, founded in late 1989 by Wendy Kopp, who had just graduated from Princeton, is careful not to leave the impression that its young teachers are out to save the world.

"To save the world implies that something needs saving," said Roger Schulman, 24, who completed his two years at West Baltimore Middle School in June and is now the corps' Baltimore regional director. "Most of us simply think kids in urban schools deserve an equal chance to excel, and, tragically, they're not getting that chance."

For Mr. Ross, the son of a lawyer and paralegal in Charleston, W.Va., it will be a formidable challenge. He's aware that "the highs will be the highest of highs and the lows the lowest of lows."

Most suburbanites wouldn't come near Booker T. Washington, in the 1300 block of McCulloh St., not far from the state office complex, let alone enter it. A century-old brick Romanesque structure, it's an imposing building with elegant facades, wide hallways and an ornamental entrance hall now partially hidden by a false ceiling.

Once dark and dingy, the alma mater of Thurgood Marshall, Cab Calloway and the Mitchell family of civil rights fame was remodeled in the early 1980s. These days, it's bright inside, a far cry from 50 years ago, when the teachers of the "colored" Booker T. Washington Junior High petitioned the school board for improvements, declaring, "The whole sight is one of filth, and dismal to behold."

Principal Ruth N. Bukatman presides over a school that reflects the pathology of city education. Forty-seven percent of the student body changes yearly, as students switch schools or disappear. Fifty-five percent were absent more than 20 days in 1993. Thirty-two percent passed the state functional mathematics tests, compared with 79 percent statewide. Forget the new state "performance" tests. Booker T.'s scores barely register, like the heartbeat of a dying man.

The principal is a believer in Teach for America. She said she finds the corps members "bright, adaptable and idealistic. They're here because they choose to be here. And they learn a good deal about themselves and about life here on McCulloh Street." Six of last year's eight corps members will be back (one dropped out at mid-year; another left this summer), and another of this year's corps members, Felicity Messner, of Ann Arbor, Mich., will be teaching across the hall from Mr. Ross.

So Mr. Ross will have other Teach for America "veterans" to turn to for advice, in addition to a Baltimore "support director" on the Teach for America staff to whom he can turn in an emergency, day or night.

Twenty-six of the first 73 Teach for America corps members in 1992 will begin their third year in city classrooms today. Sixty-three of last year's 73 are back, a return rate of 86 percent, which compares favorably with the 78 percent return rate of all new city teachers.

The Teach for America teachers began their training with 450 other corps members in Houston, then moved to Baltimore for two weeks of "induction" before they were turned over to the city school system for orientation. While they looked for apartments -- Mr. Ross will share with another corps member -- and explored Baltimore, Teach for America put them through a series of workshops designed to ready them for entry.

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey addressed the group, admitting that "I was an abomination as a new teacher."

There was frank advice from veteran corps members. "There is guaranteed to be at least one teacher in your school who will resent you because you're young, because you're not traditionally trained or because you're white," advised one second-year teacher. (About three-quarters of the Baltimore corps members and 60 percent of the national corps members are white.)

There were more than a few horror stories. Consuela Scott, beginning her second year today at Frankford Intermediate School, told of trying to teach a 240-pound sixth-grader. And horror stories about the fantasticated bureaucracy of the corps members' new employer. One must be assertive and wily to survive it, the new teachers were advised. Mr. Ross learned the lesson early. "I didn't have a social studies curriculum, so I went to North Avenue [school headquarters] and said 'Gimme.' They did."

Ms. Bukatman and Mr. Schulman said the biggest challenge facing Mr. Ross will be "classroom management" -- the ability to establish rules everyone understands and then stick to them, maintaining control while learning takes place. "Because I didn't do that," Mr. Schulman said, "the first week goes down as close to the worst week of my life. But the worst day of the second year was better than the best day of the first year."

His inspiration, said Mr. Ross, is a grandfather who recently died. "He was always involved in righting wrongs and helping people two steps behind get two steps ahead."

A history major at Northwestern, Mr. Ross will be teaching social studies and English at Booker T., earning a beginning salary of $23,509. And having joined the Baltimore Teachers Union, he'll be a member of organized labor.

Last week, he declined to join the other Teach for America teachers at the school in painting their own classrooms. "I'm going to cover my walls with posters," he said. Many of them depict famous blacks. "They'll be much more willing to learn," he said, "if I can get them to realize they're active participants in history. Think of the extraordinary example from their own school, Thurgood Marshall."

Mr. Ross said he's prepared for today and for the school year, not apprehensive and "no more anxious than you'd be in starting anything new."

He said his mother is "a little worried."

Ms. Bukatman, who said she "cried every day my first year" as a teacher, made no predictions. "People always surprise me," she said.

But Mr. Schulman predicted Mr. Ross would make it. "He's determined to succeed. You can tell it in talking to him. I'd bet on him."

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