After 25 years of decay, change can begin today


THIS IS the day the world begins to change for the children of Baltimore. Or maybe not. Robert Schiller, the dangerous new interim chief of schools, begins to sell his ideas for reform today. Or maybe he doesn't. Everybody's a little nervous. Carl Stokes can feel it from a distance of two years ago.

Robert Schiller is dangerous because he has nothing to lose. Hero or villain, success or failure, he's out of here in a matter of months. It's in the job description. Last week, with nothing on his mind but the truth, he called the city schools "academically bankrupt." This is a very good start to a dialogue.

Except that Carl Stokes started it two years ago. In the summer of 1995, then-Councilman Stokes was running for president of the Baltimore City Council. He kept talking about the disastrous schools, which are the heartache of this city, and everybody kept ignoring him. Now he's got a little more muscle in this school business. But he's expressing one little problem. He's wondering if there's enough time to sell some of Robert Schiller's notions, with classes starting in a month. Enough time, indeed.

When Stokes was talking about the pathetic school system two years ago, he knew it was on a 25-year slide. He also knew that the biggest obstacle to making serious change was the very people in charge of the system.

Now Stokes is a member of the school board. Beginning today, he and other officials will debate Robert Schiller's proposals in public: Extension of the school day. Reduction in class sizes. Curriculum changes. A new stress on reading. Battle lines are already being drawn.

But, for a moment, go back to a summer afternoon in 1995, to a little restaurant booth a few blocks from school headquarters, where Stokes was speaking some uncomfortable truths about the school system. These truths have not changed. Maybe someone is ready to pay attention now.

"Start with this," he said that day. "All kids pass. North Avenue says, 'Well, we don't want to flunk a kid, it'll lower his self-esteem.' I say, it'll be a lot lower when the kid gets out there in the real world and realizes he can't compete.

"This is fraud. It's something dreamed up by the bureaucrats at North Avenue, which is a graveyard for inefficient people. They have no standards there. Have you seen them fire anybody? Maybe three people. No one is even threatened. It's a bunch of folks who belong to somebody's fraternity or pinochle club ... but it's definitely a place where people are not held accountable for results." All of this is now supposed to change. Earlier this year, state School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick managed to coax big money out of a reluctant state legislature, in exchange for the city handing over direct control of the schools.

Now we begin to discover if anybody knows what to do with the power - and the money. Schiller wants to pay for more teachers. More teachers means fewer kids in each class. Grasmick says, wait a minute, extra teachers don't mean anything if they aren't quality teachers.

This gets us back to Stokes two years ago. Nobody in the system gets fired, not administrators, not principals, not teachers. Everybody's comfortable. Everybody's safe. Except the kids aren't learning anything.

So Schiller wants an extended school day. It isn't mandatory, not for the kids or the teachers. But teachers who stay would get extra pay, and kids who show up would get help in reading and math and science.

This gets us back to Stokes two years ago. He was already talking about extended school days, for the simplest of reasons: As constituted, the schools have these kids for about six hours a day, and the world has them for 18. The balance of influence has to shift. The kids go home to parents who are overworked or absent, and the television's blaring, and they go outside to streets offering unhealthy distractions. But Stokes was thinking even bigger than Schiller.

"Schools have to be an oasis," he said in 1995. "Open them 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening. Use the extra time to teach critical thinking, personal hygiene, responsibility. But nobody talks about doing these things, because there's no vision. Test scores are down, violence is up, and nothing changes."

Well, that's not quite accurate. What changes is the way a city looks at itself. A city sees its young people unprepared to enter the adult world. It sees its schools become nests of failure, and those who live in the various neighborhoods, not wishing to subject their own children to such conditions, pack their bags and move elsewhere.

This is the day some of this is supposed to begin to change. We'll leave it to the professionals to work out the details. But change has to come while pieces of this city are still standing. It's what those millions in state money to the schools is all about. It's what Schiller meant when he called the system academically bankrupt. It's what Carl Stokes was talking about two years ago, when the schools were already 25 years into their decay. They change, big-time, or another generation of children loses its future.

Pub Date: 7/29/97

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