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Reformer's motto: 'You can do more than that'

Ask anybody: J. Tyson Tildon has a very low tolerance for mediocrity.

Regardless of his accomplishments, the 71-year-old scientist who recently left the Baltimore school board always believes he can do more.

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As if studying biochemistry as a Fulbright scholar in Paris weren't enough, a year later Tildon enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University to earn his doctorate in the field.

And although he is father to three children, he adopted a 20-year-old college student because she was fatherless and had a promising future in medicine.

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Last month, Tildon officially wrapped up a six-year term as one of the original members of the city's New Board of School Commissioners.

"I remember when he graduated from junior high, he was salutatorian," said older brother Charles Tildon, who lives in Ashburton. "That wasn't enough for him. So he made sure when he graduated from [Frederick] Douglass [High School], he was valedictorian."

His adopted daughter, Sharon Wilks, grew up in a Baltimore housing project, but is now a hematologist, oncologist and internist in Texas -- thanks in part to Tildon, she said.

"There were times when I thought I had done enough," said Wilks, 43, who remains grateful for Tildon's financial, professional and emotional support. "And he said, 'You can do more than that.'"

That philosophy is what encouraged Tildon -- an accomplished neuroscientist and biochemist -- to take on what he says was the greatest challenge of his life: reforming the failing Baltimore city school system.

The city's children could do more than they had been doing, he believed, and the school system could do more to see to it that they did.

'Kids want to learn'

"What people don't realize is I'd never done anything difficult, until I got to the school board. It was the most difficult thing I've ever done," Tildon said. "People did not have any belief that our children could succeed. But these kids want to learn."

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Since Tildon was appointed to the reorganized school board -- created in 1997 by unprecedented state legislation in an urgent attempt to fix the troubled district -- more learning has been going on in Baltimore's schools.

Test scores have jumped up in the elementary and middle school grades. Graduation rates are up. Large, unruly high schools are being broken down into smaller, more manageable schools and academies.

Many credit Tildon -- who was chairman of the revamped board the first four years -- for jump-starting that progress.

"His leadership was definitive and direct and he kept things moving," said Ed Brody, one of the nine original members of the new school board. "And it certainly did get the system moving in a positive direction."

That his leadership was a catalyst for change in the city school system came as no surprise to his colleagues in the medical world. Noting that he helped pioneer important research into Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, they simply reasoned that he also would be able to lead a successful effort to reform the city school system.

'He doesn't let go'

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"He's just a very influential person," said Donald E. Wilson, dean of the school of medicine at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where Tildon was a professor and scientist until he retired in 2000. "He gets his teeth into something, and he doesn't let go." Tildon says now that it was his love of problem-solving -- honed over 50 years working in science -- that first excited him about leading the board, and the system, toward success. But it was the children that kept him there.

"There was a very steep learning curve. I wasn't ready for it," he said. "But I felt a commitment to the children. That, I think, kept me hooked. And there's no doubt in my mind that we've had an impact on the children."

Morning visitors

During breakfast at his favorite restaurant, it takes Tildon an unusually long time to eat his corned beef hash, fried potatoes and eggs. His meal is interrupted several times by people who know him, who want to say "Good morning" and chat a bit about the city's goings-on.

His morning visitors run the gamut: a former school board member, a police union official, a downtown businessman, a niece, two waitresses.

Tildon greets all of them warmly, standing to hug one or shake another's hand, grinning, asking about personal matters and laughing.

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Tildon, who lives in Homeland, enjoys a weekly breakfast at the Crossroads restaurant in the Radisson at the Cross Keys Inn for more than just the food. It's also a listening post for Baltimore insiders.

"If you want to know anything about what's going on in Baltimore," he said, "you come here."

Born and raised in Baltimore, Tildon's institutional memory is legendary.

"It's amazing," said the current school board chairwoman Patricia L. Welch. "He can very quickly recall almost anything. He has a very analytical kind of mind and things stick because of the way his mind works. That's why we looked to him (for answers)."

While the city's schoolchildren have made academic progress during Tildon's watch, he remembers when times weren't so rosy.

"When we came on [the board six years ago], there were so many areas of need," Tildon said. "But the management, in particular, was in shambles."

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The system's leaders, it seemed, had fallen asleep at the switch, but the mismanagement was a long time in the making, Tildon said.

Suburan sprawl

Tildon's theory begins with suburban sprawl. As residents who could afford to do so moved to more affluent neighborhoods, competition grew between the city and the developing suburbs over how public money was spent.

"Taxpayers didn't have money for both and neglected the urban schools like crazy," Tildon said.

To counter the exodus of affluent families, the city schools came up with a stopgap solution, he said -- to claim academic success even though there was very little of it to report.

"They called it 'social promotion,'" Tildon said.

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The decision seemed right at the time, he said, but was "just as pernicious" as the money drain that prompted it. Once students knew they would pass their classes regardless of their grades or test scores, "Why would you work?" Tildon asked.

And with little motivation for students to actually learn, there was no need to hire teachers who could actually teach, or administrators who could run a school building or a school system, he said.

"So it did have major benefits for people who were less than qualified," Tildon said.

It took the original board three years to tear apart and rebuild the leadership structure in the city schools. And it took three more years to see real academic progress. Now it's time to pass the baton, Tildon said.

"I think it's time for some fresh perspectives and new energies," he said.

Poetry in motion

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Over the years, Tildon has found his own perspective in unlikely places, such as poetry.

On one occasion, he had Sonnet 29 in his shirt pocket, scribbled out from a book of Shakespeare onto a dog-eared sheet of notebook paper -- simply because he does things like that.

"When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself and curse my fate."

Something about the Bard's words speak to Tildon about society, about young people, about a hopelessness that has to be fought with education.

"It just puts into perspective all the things that need to be said," Tildon said.

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A voracious reader, Tildon especially enjoys poetry. He likes the economy of words, the meaning captured in just a few, short lines.

"You can say that, in many ways, our time on the board was a poem," Tildon said.

By that he means the original board accomplished a tremendous amount in a short period of time.

"That board came together so well around that mission" to repair the system," Tildon said. "I've never in my life been in a circumstance where so many people were so strongly committed to the success of something."

Though he has stepped down after two terms, and is glad to have free time to pursue other interests -- such as his work on the Board of Trustees at the Enoch Pratt Free Library -- Tildon said he plans to help keep the school system on its path of improvement.

A new vision is important, he concedes, but "sometimes you have to know how something happened, in order to do something appropriate to fix it."


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