RECRUIT SURVIVES, FLOURISHES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's been hot and muggy in Room 309 of Booker T. Washington Middle School, just as miserable as it was in September, when 22-year-old Alexander Ross greeted 35 sixth-graders and began his career as a teacher in inner-city Baltimore.

Now, as the school year ends, there's just the hint of a swagger in Mr. Ross' walk, a tad more confidence in his expression, a noticeable increase in the intimacy he's willing to venture with his students.

Mr. Ross, the Teach for America recruit whom The Sun visited before he launched his career and again in October, has survived a year of teaching. More than that, he's thrived. He's proud of it, and so is his principal, Ruth N. Bukatman.

"He's a success story," she said. "He turned out to be instinctively a good teacher."

When Mr. Ross started work at the West Baltimore school in September, he was fresh out of Northwestern University. He'd had five weeks of training in Teach for America, the national program that sends recent college graduates into urban and rural schools.

Moreover, he was short, pale white and baby-faced entering a tough, all-black school with all the attendant problems and daily crises of urban education. "He'll get chewed up," an administrator at his new school predicted then.

Now he says he wants to travel during the summer, "digest things a bit" and return early in August to help train the 30 Teach for America recruits starting work in Baltimore in the fall. "I want to work with short, white, young-looking people," he laughed. "I've got a lot to impart about classroom management."

When The Sun visited Mr. Ross in October, he was running a tight classroom, regimenting with the demeanor of a drill sergeant. Students -- entire classes -- were kept after school. Talking in class wasn't tolerated. Mr. Ross had been advised this was the way to survive in a Baltimore middle school. He would loosen up once his students learned who was boss, he said.

The approach paid off, he said last week. "A lot of the disruption faded before Christmas, and the second semester was much calmer."

It was during the spring, said Ms. Bukatman, who kept a close eye on Mr. Ross, that "he was able to get a lot more into his teaching. Seasoned teachers don't have the command he has in a classroom. It's not ditto heaven for Alec," meaning that he does not rely on work sheets and dittos for much of his instruction, as some teachers do.

So one day last week, it was a more confident Mr. Ross, now 23, who ventured to tease a couple of students about flirting and who could allow 11-year-old Wendell Freeman to sing his own rap song in class without sparking chaos.

The blackboard still listed "VW" -- verbal warning -- and "D" -- detention -- but Mr. Ross seemed much less eager to fill them in. Students still had to be marched down three floors to the cafeteria -- and still had 25 minutes to eat while administrators shouted orders for comings and goings.

But Mr. Ross was more relaxed, and so were his students.

"He taught us to uplift ourselves," said Dawniece Roberts, 11, one of several students Mr. Ross has helped enter special programs -- in her case, the city's RAISE mentoring program. Mr. Ross and two other Teach for America corps members also raised money from Aetna Insurance to take their students on field trips to Morgan State and the Johns Hopkins universities.

He regularly telephoned his students' parents -- with good news and bad about their academic progress. "He'd be calling my home and talking to my father," Dawniece said. "Sometimes that caused a long lecture from my father -- about two hours' long."

Back home in Charleston, W.Va., Mr. Ross' mother, who was fearful for her son in his urban venture, "now condones what I'm doing," he said. He took videos of the students home for Christmas, he said, "and now my mother scolds me: 'You're not being mean to Angelo, are you?' "

Not that it's been a perfect run. In any Baltimore middle school, that would be difficult. Mr. Ross talked about "putting things in context." He meant urban reality.

The father of one of his students was shot to death in a dispute over drugs. A sixth-grader dropped out -- pregnant. The mother of a student recently died of AIDS.

Student turnover -- the "mobility" rate that makes education so difficult in Baltimore -- was high in Mr. Ross' classes, but not the 50 percent some had predicted. Of those he confronted when he entered Room 309 in September, 20 percent to 30 percent, depending on the class, had left Booker T. Washington by last week, and many of the school's students began summer vacation early, a common phenomenon in Baltimore middle and high schools.

Mr. Ross said the year had its low moments. First-year teacher burnout, he said, has a number of symptoms. "One of them is that your eyes glaze over. But I combatted the symptoms when I recognized them. I never got to the point of quitting."

Mr. Ross said fellow teachers "saved my life more than once. . . . Some predicted I'd be shunned or criticized for not having an education degree. That didn't happen at all. At Booker T., it's so tough doing your job that you don't have time for a lot of that kind of politics."

Roger Schulman, regional director of Teach for America, said 18 of 19 corps members who started teaching with Mr. Ross in September survived the year -- better than the 20 percent dropout rate for first-year teachers systemwide -- and all but one of the 18 are expected this fall for the second year of service necessary to earn a Maryland teaching certificate.

"Alec went through a natural progression," said Mr. Schulman, who worked at West Baltimore Middle School as a Teach for America corps member. "The first two months he concentrated on classroom management, but then he was able to teach a lot more content and to do a lot more imaginative things, like bring in speakers. I've never seen anyone more determined. He'll be one of the faculty leaders at Booker T. next year in only his second year of work."

Teach for America has been harshly criticized for its quick-entry approach to preparing classroom instructors. Columbia University Teachers College Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, the leader of the program's opposition, called its approach "not only inept but also morally and ethically irresponsible."

Mr. Ross begs to differ and uses a metaphor often heard from Teach for America critics.

"I was dumped into the middle of the lake," he said, "and had to swim. At first I had to dog-paddle to keep afloat, but eventually I learned to swim, and I swam right to shore."

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