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Children would fare better if parents had school choice


AT THE TENDER AGE of 15, Princess Good walked into a public school for the first time. The school was Baltimore's Northern High School. Culture shock set in almost immediately.

She came home and told her mother, Aloma Good, that Northern was a "rough" school. Princess was appalled at students using profanity and said she noticed "three or four fights a day."

"The kids told her, 'You don't look like us, you don't talk like us. You don't belong in this school,' " the elder Good recalled.

In fairness to Northern, it's not the same school that made headlines months ago as one of the country's most notorious blackboard jungles. School officials reported 20 assaults at Northern in January 1998. In January this year, there were nine.

From January 1997 to January 1998, there were 131 assaults reported at the school. From January 1998 to last month, there were 75, a dramatic 43 percent decrease, for the mathematicians among you.

Vanessa Pyatt, a spokeswoman for the school system, gives credit for the decline to new Northern Principal Helena Nobles-Jones.

"She's done a lot in a few months," Pyatt said.

But Aloma Good wanted her daughter transferred to City College, where the numbers are drastically different -- Northern's improvement notwithstanding. In January 1998 and last month, one assault was reported at City. There were 11 from January 1997 to January 1998 and 13 from January 1998 to last month.

Good also wants Princess -- an aspiring brain surgeon -- to experience City's superb college preparatory curriculum. So she filled out papers to apply to City. (Students don't transfer into citywide schools, Pyatt said. They must apply.) The next step was getting Princess tested.

"I left a message for the person in charge of testing," Good recalled. "Nobody called back. I called again, and someone told me to come down to [school headquarters on] North Avenue. I went down and then was told I needed an appointment."

A testing date of Feb. 2 was finally scheduled, but things had changed drastically before then.

On Jan. 21, according to Good, a girl "rammed Princess in the back with her book bag." The girl then punched Princess, knocked her down and stomped her in the face. Her daughter, Good alleges, suffered a concussion and was knocked unconscious. Good still remembers the sight when her daughter got home.

"Her face was swollen, her eye was bloodshot," Good recalled.

Nobles-Jones, Northern's principal, remembers the incident differently. She said that Princess and two other girls were fighting and that Princess was knocked to the ground, where another student may have inadvertently stepped on her head. She said all three girls were in her office for a brief time after the fight.

Princess does, Good said, admit she was fighting. The daughter's apprehension about being at Northern is because the girl realizes fisticuffs are not exactly her forte.

Confusion in the case still abounds. Good said that a letter from the school system told her to send Princess one place for the Feb. 2 test but that it was held at North Avenue. By the time Princess knew where to go, the test was over.

It would be easy to pick on Northern or the city school system as a villain, but the real culprit is lack of a voucher system to promote genuine school choice. Good, in answer to a question about whether she would use a voucher, replied with a resounding, "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Good and her daughter are Muslims. For grades one through six, Princess went to an Islamic school. She went to a nonsectarian private school for grades seven through nine. It doesn't take a great deal of figuring to conclude that Muslim children in public schools present a situation that is, at best, problematic.

"We have a lot of Muslim parents who are home-schooling their kids," Good said. Voucher foes fear these parents will get together and use public money to start private Islamic academies. These same foes never question the injustice of having parents who send their children to private schools paying taxes for public schools their kids don't use.

"Islam teaches us to honor our parents and not disrespect teachers," Good said of her religion. Her struggle is to send her daughter to a school with students who share those same values.

Can city school officials honestly tell her that describes the majority of Baltimore's high schools?

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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