Teacher Dollie Truesdale leaves her third-floor classroom at Southern High School, strolls onto the landing of Stairwell 5 and stands, fearless, greeting students.
"Good morning!" she says, beaming at a group of boys climbing toward her. "You're late. I hope you have passes." The boys flash smiles and excuse slips as they hurry along, and one mutters a quick "Yes, ma'am."
"See? It's different now," Truesdale says. "I can go in any hallway, any stairwell in this school, and not be afraid."
It's ironic -- sad, even -- that a teacher can find elation in the ability to stand in a school stairwell and carry on a civil conversation with students. But this is Baltimore's Southern High, where only a few months ago Stairwell 5 seemed more like a prison yard than a school passageway.
Students set fires, greased the stairs with chicken bones, knocked out lights and covered the walls with graffiti. One brandished a gun. Principal Darline Lyles warned students and teachers to stay out of Stairwell 5 and its close cousin, Stairwell 6, comparing them to Baltimore streets you wouldn't walk down at night. She routinely declared "lockdowns" to sweep warring neighborhood thugs out of her building, only to see some sneak back in.
To visit Southern today is to see a different school, transformed by a few common-sense changes implemented in November and December. Standing on the third level of Stairwell 5, Truesdale points proudly to the squeaky-clean stairs and graffiti-free walls. Four video cameras record the comings and goings of potential troublemakers.
There hasn't been a fire at Southern in more than three weeks, she says -- seemingly an eternity here. The hallways are orderly. When the bell rings, students go to class. And the last lockdown? No one can remember when that was.
"I can go into my classroom, keep the door open and teach," Truesdale says. "It's quiet. It's amazing."
Schools not lost causes
The story of Southern's quick turnaround is a testament to the idea that city schools are not lost causes -- proof that with a modicum of effort and attention, they can at least be orderly and safe, if not outstanding.
The question for schools chief Robert Booker might be this: Why wait for other schools to spin out of control before applying Southern's new measures throughout the city?
"Some of the techniques we used at Southern are already being implemented in other schools," Booker said last week. "We're replicating the community meetings and the community involvement, and we're beginning to look at other things that may cost more money."
Booker said he is trying to find money in next year's budget to have surveillance cameras installed in other high schools.
Lyles is convinced, though. "What they've done for Southern should be implemented in all high schools," she said. "It worked."
There was nothing magical about the change that Booker, Lyles and other school officials effected at Southern. It was a straightforward effort to get rid of problems and improve safety.
Lyles removed 127 students from the school -- through transfers and expulsions, and by dropping chronic no-shows from the rolls. Funds should be available for a "twilight school," which would allow some of the troubled students to continue their education at Southern after regular school hours, without bothering other students.
The ranks of Southern's "safe-school facilitators," who roam the building looking for trouble spots, doubled from three to six; two additional police officers were assigned to the school; and a probation officer set up a full-time operation on the first floor.
All told, the school has only eight additional staff members, and the school system spent a paltry $40,000 on other changes, but the difference inside the building is like night and day.
"Lyles had been yelling for help, but nobody was listening downtown," said Bill Parker, a government teacher who has been at Southern long enough to have taught many of his current students' grandparents. "But since we got some help and the message got out, things haven't been so wild. It was that easy."
Standing next to a friend who wears an AK-47 bullet around his neck, 10th-grader Rodney Barnett, a defensive lineman on the football team, says he finally feels safer inside the school than on the street. Loretta Hudson, a 17-year-old junior who says she hid in the halls and stopped coming to school during the chaotic fall, says the "big difference is you've got me in class now."
"It's easy to go to class and mind your own business now," said 11th-grader Damien Parker, who lives on the east side, one of the neighborhoods whose graffiti was scrawled all over the stairwells last fall. "I think the biggest difference might be the cameras. They're everywhere."
Like a thousand pairs of eyes peering into almost every nook and cranny of Southern's sprawling, 308,000-square-foot complex, the new 32-camera surveillance system might be the school's most noticeable change.
Behind a locked blue door on the second floor of the school, burly safe-school facilitator William Brandon sits in front of two TV monitors that receive feeds from the cameras. He sees everything -- students hanging in hallways or stairwells, nonstudents trying to get in school doors -- and responds immediately.
"To all safe-school facilitators!" he blares into his walkie-talkie. "I have four students sitting on the first floor, Stairwell 4."
Within seconds, a facilitator is there, and the students move along.
"They can't hide," adds Brandon, 26, flipping through the different camera shots and zooming in and out. "We can even see if they exchange money or anything."
On the wall next to Brandon are 31 photographs that school police took of contraband they've found on students in the school, including large quantities of crack, syringes and pipes. The photos are a reminder of the thin line between the streets and the school. But they also mark the change taking place at Southern: No photos are dated after November 1998.
The cameras also cut down on the excuse-making that many students attempt, according to school staff, because they are watched by a videotaping system.
"The other day, we had some students just walk out of the building at noon," said Zenita Jackson, Southern's best-known safe-school facilitator. "They said the next day that it wasn't them, so they shouldn't be in trouble. We just pulled out the tape and showed it to them. There was nothing they could say."
Jackson, in her fourth year at Southern, cuts a stylish figure as she walks the halls, dressed in black slacks and a black sweater that match her walkie-talkie. Her blue dress shoes are her fourth pair this year; patrolling the school's halls, she wears out a pair a month.
In the fall, Jackson spent most of her days breaking up fights -- many of them between girls from the Flag House Courts public housing project and Cherry Hill -- though she was often helpless to halt the chaos for more than a few minutes.
However, the changes at Southern have emboldened her, and she takes little flak from anyone now.
'That's it. You're out'
On one of her strolls through the building last week, she encountered two girls in a hallway, apparently ditching class. They had already been caught twice smoking in bathrooms. When they're caught on camera a little later, smoking in a stairwell, Jackson has had it.
"That's it. You're out. On suspension," she says to the girls, who head to the main office to wait for their parents to be notified.
On the busy third-floor hallway crossing known in the school as "Hollywood and Vine," Jackson tells a wool-capped boy to remove his hat. He complies, then tries to slip it back on once he is 20 feet past her. Jackson coils and snaps. "Please handle your business. I mean it," she says.
This time, the cap goes into his book bag, for good.
School's public face
Jackson also has become the school's public face in many neighborhoods. She makes home visits to students who are skipping school. In the mornings, she patrols Cross Street Market and much of Light Street, making sure that students finish eating their breakfast by 8: 30 a.m. and get to class.
Between bites of her breakfast -- french fries -- one day last week, Jackson yells at students who dare to come into the market after school has started and metes out suspensions to those who defy her.
Gary Johnson, a 17-year-old junior, disobeys her order to leave and walks into a Light Street restaurant to get food.
Jackson gives chase and confronts him in the establishment. "You're on suspension, starting now," she bellows, causing other patrons to turn their heads and stare at Johnson.
He leaves, grumbling about the consequences of his actions and the changes in the school.
"They are violating our privacy," he says. "They are always watching you. You don't have room to breathe."
This is Johnson's third school in three years. He was kicked out of Lake Clifton as a freshman and transferred from Patterson in November. Now he's on suspension at Southern.
As Johnson walks back to the school to report to the office, Jackson wanders back toward the Cross Street Market to watch for students. Suddenly, a flower-shop owner hands her a bouquet from an unidentified male admirer thankful for her work.
"It's a better day," she says, smiling. "God is good."
The decline of violence at Southern has allowed school administrators to focus more on the nuts and bolts of running a school. Lyles has time to write grant applications in her office. The school's improving biotech program is upgrading its laboratories, with new space for computer hook-ups and experiments. A program to prepare more students for the SAT and college application process has expanded this year to include ninth-graders. Attendance at the school's basketball games has picked up.
A handful of disturbances still occur each day, mostly between 10: 30 a.m. and 12: 30 p.m., when the cafeteria serves lunch in staggered periods. Trash still piles up in Stairwell 6 on bad days. Some of the bathrooms remain closed, and the smell of cigarette smoke sometimes wafts from certain areas of the building. Last week, two students on their way to school were spotted igniting trash bags that a Cross Street resident had left out for city collection.
During a two-day span last week, one girl was caught with a hunting knife in a classroom, a boy on suspension sneaked back into the building and tried to start a fight, and another student threatened teacher Arthur Seidel when he stepped in to break up a fight.
In the fall, consequences might or might not have followed such transgressions. But now, there's no question.
"I'm going to bang you," the student told Seidel menacingly.
"You're going to bang me?" Seidel responded with a stone face, not yielding an inch to the threat. He motioned to a school police officer, who carted the student to the office for automatic suspension.
"We still have some of the hard-heads," principal Lyles noted. "But things are better, and the kids like the new rules. They like the zero tolerance, because it makes them feel safe. They see kids being removed for what they're doing, and they know we're not going to take it."
More could be done
Teachers and students believe more could be done. Darryl Dorsey, 17, a junior point guard on the basketball team, says Southern administrators need to be more strict with those who are late for class.
And though the principal has written a weekly column in a neighborhood newspaper urging parents to get involved, very few volunteer at the school. Lyles says she would like to be able to assign parents to monitor bathrooms and the cafeteria, to help patrol the halls, and to do landscaping on the school's dreary grounds. She could use about a dozen volunteers, she guesses.
But, for Jackson, it's already "a pleasure to come to work every day," she says, smiling. "A real pleasure."
At Southern, maybe that's enough.
Pub Date: 2/18/99