ON SOUTH Decker Avenue the other day, a few blocks below Patterson Park where Highlandtown and Canton melt into each other in the real estate ads, I see a guy rehabbing a rowhouse. The city is full of such people now. They bring new money into Baltimore. They breathe life into neighborhoods once considered gone. They do all of this by performing a careful dance around the public schools.
On South Decker, the heart soars. The neighborhood's a mix of working-class old-timers, whose families have given the place its good-natured character over many generations, and newly arrived suburban yuppies seeking a sense of tight-knit, crowded, energetic community. To the north, Patterson Park glistens under a noon sun. To the south, the restaurants and taverns in Canton square are filling up.
The rehab man puts aside his hammer for a few moments and takes up his sociological perspective. He points to four different real estate signs on the street. These are houses that once sold for perhaps $5,000. That rowhouse over there, says the rehab man, goes for this much money. That house over there, even more. Every amount he recites runs well into six figures.
It is all quite encouraging, the rehab man says, except for one thing. The public schools, he says, feel none of the impact of the neighborhood changes. The pattern has become clear:
a) Young suburban people, married or otherwise, move into the city.
b) They remain in city neighborhoods until they have children approaching school age.
c) They move back to the suburbs.
Thus, the constant conundrum. For all the promise seen in so many city neighborhoods, the public schools remain the ever-lasting sore spot, the vulnerability felt in all communities, and the great flaw in all plans to bring emotional and financial stability to Baltimore.
The city's schools have, among other things, an image problem. It comes from several decades of newspaper headlines, from security problems and plummeting academic standards, and from families that fled to suburbia and justified the move by telling each other that the schools were even worse than they were.
As everybody knows, the city's reading and math scores have been distressingly low for at least the last quarter-century. In much of white suburbia, some of this gets translated in racial terms. In a city now roughly 60 percent black, the schools are nearly 90 percent black - and hold to a testing pattern consistent around the entire state, in which African-American children lag behind.
On the last Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, 54 percent of white third-graders around the state passed the math test - and only 19 percent of black children. In science, 53 percent of white kids passed - and only 22 percent of black kids.
Such figures are printed in the daily newspapers every year, and send a message to white and black parents: Find another way to educate your children. Thus, the city schools have one more problem: a brain drain, the steady exodus of children of promise, white and black, to private and parochial schools - or to suburbia.
And that pattern feeds directly into the problem: how to convince all those young couples moving to the city that they can stay here when the time comes to start building families.
Because, for all the well-publicized problems, the city's schools have also shown signs of hope. As The Sun's Liz Bowie reported yesterday, 109 of the city's 120 elementary schools have shown consistent academic gains over the past five years. Ten elementary schools scored at, or above, the state average. And half a dozen more are within three points of the average.
This is nice news within a certain context. The context is decades of bad news that has become set in stone in people's minds: of politicized school boards and bloated bureaucracies wallowing in their own self-importance while the schools were coming undone; of hallways and schoolyards unsafe for kids; and of teachers overmatched and exhausted by their students' special needs.
The newest evidence is that some of this is changing. Not only are there academic improvements, but security improvements, too.
The question is: How long does it take for an image to undo itself after decades of unrelenting damage? And, in a time when so many young people are moving back to the city, will they stick around long enough after their babies are born to find out the difference between yesterday's troubles and today's possibilities?
For all the rehabbing in places such as South Decker Avenue, the city's schools are the places where rehabilitation remains undone.