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School takes on growing role for children of Lansdowne as parents' jobs disappear


OUTSIDE, ON THE streets of southwest Baltimore County, a morning rain falls from a miserable leaden sky. Inside, in the big gymnasium of the Lansdowne Middle School, it's as if every drenched soul in the neighborhood has arrived seeking sanctuary from the gloom.

"This is, what, the entire school?" somebody asks the principal, Thomas DeHart, gesturing to the big crowd still shuffling in.

"No, no," DeHart chuckles, glancing at rows of tables filled with kids and some of their parents. "This is only the kids who made the honor roll."

Nearly 300 of 'em made it this quarter. That's 39 percent of the whole school with B averages. So many scholars! So much potential! Such academic flowering!

And yet. ...

Here is the latest round of Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) test scores from Lansdowne's eighth-graders: 12 percent passed reading; 27 percent passed writing; 32 percent passed language usage; 19 percent passed social studies; 29 percent passed science; 26 percent passed math.

In the school gymnasium, you watch these kids' faces as their names are called and they step forward to receive their honor roll certificates. They're the faces of children on Christmas morning, faces full of unambiguous delight, full of the simple joy of one pure moment in their lives when the world offers a massive embrace.

But the chasm remains: all these honor roll kids, somehow getting all these failing grades on statewide tests. And this is a history of Lansdowne academics that comes down through the generations.

"There was a survey," DeHart was saying Thursday morning, when the honor roll assembly was over and he'd sent all these kids back to their classrooms. "It said 42 percent of all men 18 and older in Lansdowne have no high school diplomas. And only 3 percent have college degrees."

At century's end, in the age of information, this is an equation for getting nowhere. There was a time, DeHart says, when Lansdowne tradition meant kids reaching legal dropout age and heading straight for employment at the nearby brewery -- Carling's, National, Tuborg, the place changed ownership lots of times over the years, but consistently provided jobs -- which meant, until the plant closed several years back, plenty of folks living off pretty good working-class salaries for the rest of their lives.

But such places, like the brewery, like Sparrows Point's steel mill, where jobs were handed down like generational heirlooms, have diminished or disappeared. The change is tough. The kids have to stay in school now, have to reach for college if they can, have to adjust to the new expectations of the job market.

Thus we come to the chasm between academic performance as measured by standardized state tests and honor roll achievement as measured by Lansdowne Middle School. Where's the true measurement?

"We're not padding their grades," says DeHart, who's in his first year as principal here. "But we are changing our approach."

He holds one hand high along his chest, another far below. "Before," he says, "we held the bar up here and tried to get the kids to reach it. Now, we're meeting the students where they are, and then we're taking them as far as they can go.

"We think they can go pretty far. They can graduate, and they can get to college. But many of them arrive here with lower expectations. They come from loving parents who want the best for their kids. But, in a lot of cases, the parents didn't go far in school, and their own experience is passed on to the kids."

Such sentiments are echoed by a longtime former teacher at Lansdowne Senior High, located just up the street from the middle school.

"The Lansdowne kids are the nicest kids in the world," he says, "and their parents are very loving and supportive. But the expectations are different. A lot of the parents just put in time in school until it was time to drop out. And they'd probably find a job somewhere. But those jobs are gone now.

"And so you're left with a real anachronistic feel. It's like Lansdowne's locked in the 1950s. Most schools, high school graduation gets a little rambunctious. At Lansdowne, it's the most orderly commencement you'll ever see. It's not just a step before college. This is their final rite of passage."

The world changes about every 10 minutes now. Yesterday's assumptions no longer hold. Once, a cultural disdain for schools wasn't an automatic lockout from the job market; now, it's a lot tougher without a diploma.

"We want to give these kids every opportunity that every other kid in the county school system has," Principal DeHart was saying now. "They deserve it. And they have to understand, a high school diploma doesn't get you much anymore."

He says this in an office where the walls are decorated with Baltimore Orioles pictures. It's a little gesture of approachability to the kids, a hint that you can walk into the principal's office and feel comfortable, that this school business is for everybody.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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