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Trying to kindle the fires of learning at troubled EAI-run middle school


Last Wednesday morning, 80 politicians, community leaders and Britain's minister of education gathered at Harlem Park Middle School for a breakfast and demonstration of the good work performed at the school under the "Tesseract" program of the profit-making Education Alternatives Inc.

But an arson fire in one wing of Harlem Park filled the school with smoke, forced evacuation of the dignitaries and postponed their breakfast and tour.

"Never a dull moment at the place to be!" said a rueful Wyatt Coger, Harlem Park's principal, as he watched firefighters mop up.

But that's the kind of thing that happens at star-crossed Harlem Park, whose motto, "The Place to Be," is, for many, "The Place to Avoid."

Harlem Park has been much in the news for three years as the only middle school in the Tesseract experiment. It's one of the schools Sun reporters visited in preparing a series of articles that ends today.

The school in West Baltimore seems always on the verge of disorder, and its staff devotes considerable time to preventing fires of a different kind from the one last Wednesday. They break up fights and frisk students lightly as they leave the cafeteria to prevent food fights in the hallways and classrooms. They place bars on student lockers during the day to cut down on milling about in the hallways.

Mr. Coger, the 51-year-old former principal of Lexington Terrace Elementary, was brought in 2 1/2 years ago with one order: get the place under control.

By and large, he has done that -- if you compare the Harlem Park of 1995 with the school of 1991. EAI and its allies in the Baltimore contract, Johnson World Controls Inc. and Computer Curriculum Corp., have helped immensely by cleaning, painting, installing hundreds of computers and generally making it more inviting.

But restoring order at Harlem Park has come at a price. As Orester Shaw, principal of Douglass High -- another elementary principal transferred to gain control of a troubled secondary school -- has found, regimentation is needed before education can be improved.

"It feels like 10 years," said Mr. Coger, who approaches his job with a religious zeal, arriving at 7; sometimes, on Mondays, with a sermon stirring in his head that can be applied to the daunting task: How do you educate 1,400 adolescents in one of the world's toughest urban settings?

But while it's true that Harlem Park isn't meeting EAI's expectations -- one teacher who requested anonymity said last week that her students have had no time on computers the entire school year -- it's equally true that a number of teachers are achieving against great odds. And a number of students are at Harlem Park to learn. The school can be "the place to be" if you look hard enough.

Elisa Jenkins, 11, adopted me my first day at the school. A sixth-grader, she appeared out of nowhere to show me the ropes -- how adults break into the cafeteria line, where the computer labs are and so on. One day, as her reward for completing enough exercises correctly in the lab, we played computer checkers; Elisa won.

Elisa seemed never to let me out of her sight. I'd be walking along a crowded hallway and feel her small hand grasp mine.

One morning, Roxanne Thorn, a roving teacher and designated "trouble shooter," took over a class that had gotten out of control. (The teacher Ms. Thorn relieved left Harlem Park voluntarily the next day.) Students were wandering about at will. One of them was Elisa, who, I discovered, was not a complete angel, her winsome smile notwithstanding.

Ms. Thorn's very presence had a calming influence. She quickly switched to a lesson in career preparation. Working in groups with stacks of magazines, students clipped pictures of people in various jobs and pasted the pictures into montages. Then each group presented its product to the class. "Let's give them a hand," Ms. Thorn said as each group's spokesman finished.

Although Ms. Thorn thanked the students at the end of the class for "participating and following directions," she refused to tolerate disrespect, talking out of turn or wandering about. One of those she disciplined without mercy was Elisa Jenkins.

"Everybody's afraid of her," whispered Elisa. Asked about the teacher Ms. Thorn had relieved, Elisa said, "She just yells. Wasn't it hard for you to sit there and say nothing?"

One difference between the schedules of Harlem Park and those of the Tesseract elementary schools is that the daily "morning meeting," a gathering in which students get pep talks, perform and display their schoolwork, is a weekly affair at the middle school.

At one of those meetings, Claudia Drumheller, assistant principal in charge of Elisa's wing, tried to maintain order in the auditorium while passing out certificates for good attendance and grades.

But Ms. Drumheller had to compete with cacophony from elementary students having lunch behind a portable wall. And kids in her audience were fighting over arm rests. A few were banished to seats at the back of the room.

The noise level rose. Ms. Drumheller talked on. "Now most of you aren't winning awards today, but the good news is that you can turn things around, starting tomorrow. . . . Some people in this room are not focused. . . . I'm not getting the attention of some people."

It was time for performances by students. One read a poem. Another sang a song. Then came Tavonne Hasty, 11, one of Elisa's classmates, to do a song.

His voice, trained in a church choir, filled the auditorium and hushed his classmates. "They said I wouldn't be here today, but I'm glad to say I'm on my way. . . . I'm still holding on, I'm still holding on," he sang.

I looked around. My eyes weren't the only wet ones.

Big day for the Smiths

Hoke L. Smith, president of Towson State University, received an honorary degree Saturday from his alma mater, Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.

His mother, Bernice Smith, 93, was there for her 70-year Knox reunion, along with 24 of her fellow alumni. Maybe it's the water.

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