Each morning when students arrive at Harford Heights Elementary School, Principal Goldye Sanders sees the neighborhood's horrors reflected in her children's faces.
She sees it in the anger and frustration that furrow their brows, and in the withdrawal and depression that bring tears to their eyes. She sees it in the pure elation many express to be in school -- a place they know will be warm and safe.
So for each of the past four years, Sanders has conducted a field trip for her teachers before the beginning of the school year. She and her staff board buses, ride to various spots in the East Baltimore neighborhoods that make up their school zone, and take in the environment that has such a profound effect on the 1,700 children they teach.
They walk where the children walk and see what the children see.
"This is about making sure our teachers know where our children come from, and what it's like for them each morning walking to school through here," Sanders said yesterday, moments before boarding the bus for this year's trip. "And it's also about letting people in the community know that we're out here, that we care about them and their children, and that we want to help."
The neighborhood ills aren't an excuse for student failure, Sanders said. Rather, they should show teachers that it is their job to make sure the children don't live in sordid conditions forever.
Seventy-eight of Sanders' teachers -- about a quarter of whom are new to Baltimore this year -- walked yesterday morning past rows of boarded-up houses on East 25th Street and wandered by the trash-strewn alleys on North Chester Street. Graffiti -- much of it gang-related -- stained many of the stores and houses near East Federal Street and a police helicopter maintained a constant, whirring presence overhead.
There were no drug dealers on the corners, though several teachers noted that it was probably too early for them to be out. The trail of drug activity in the neighborhood was evidenced by syringes found in gutters and vials left on the sidewalks.
The teachers knocked on doors and passed out fliers detailing what children will need on the first day of school. They sang the school song and shook the rattles and bells Sanders gave them.
Most important, Sanders said, they got a taste of what their children will brave for each of the 180 days beginning Monday when city schools reopen.
New first-grade teacher Tammy Streat grew up in the neighborhood around the school, and still lives there. Her students may be neighbors of hers, she said. Their parents may have been her classmates.
For her, the trip was not an eye-opener, but a reminder of what she will face Monday morning.
"I know what effect this neighborhood has on children," Streat said. "I lived it. I know how much it can hurt, and make you not even want to get up and go to school."
Streat said when she used to walk to elementary school, she saw people dealing drugs on the corner or people shooting. A few times, men exposed themselves to her and she was robbed.
"My main reason for wanting to teach is to show these children that they can make it out of this," Streat said. "I did, so they can."
Streat said she had no adult to help her with homework -- just as many of her students won't.
"The only thing that kept me going was when I would look out my window and see what people were doing. I would say, 'There has to be something better to do with my life. There has to be.' "
She will reinforce that point with her charges.
For Brenda Mishler, a new third-grade teacher from Iowa, the field trip was a baptism of sorts.
"This is nothing like anything I've experienced before. It's just different," Mishler said. "I wouldn't say it's surprising, because you hear about this kind of thing. But it is different. Not bad, just different."
Fifth-grade teacher Pat Gittings, who has been at Harford Heights for 24 years, uses the field trip each year to visit children whose parents she taught and to encourage more parents to get involved in school.
Yesterday on East 25th Street, she met David and Brian Dawson, 14-year-old twins she taught as fifth-graders four years ago. Between hugs and smiles, she asked them about their younger siblings.
"Now, you make sure your little brothers and sisters show up for school on Monday," Gittings said with a wave.
Gittings said she has seen the neighborhood around the school deteriorate steadily in her time at the school.
"There has been a huge lapse in parental involvement since I got here," Gittings said. "It's to the point where I have kids in my class who just about work a full job before they come to school each morning, getting their younger siblings up and ready for school and then getting themselves ready and out the door. There's no adult there to take responsibility."
After the trip, Sanders said she hoped her teachers -- especially the new ones -- drew two lessons from the experience.
"I hope they see now what we're dealing with," Sanders said. "But I hope they also know now that they don't have to face it alone. We're going to do it together."
Pub Date: 8/28/98