Tough lessons for city students

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A water leak caused pieces of the auditorium ceiling to collapse at Baltimore's City College yesterday. Magda Chia's ninth-grade history class hardly noticed. They were busy discussing far more disastrous leaks and collapses in the school system that had promised them an education.

"It's like all the walls are falling down around us," said Richelle Smith, as the class discussed the city schools' budget crisis. "We're worried about our future."

"We are the ones directly affected," said City student body president Demetreus Gregg, who called an after-school meeting yesterday to plan a public response to the money crisis. "We have an outstanding curriculum and staff at City College. But the sad fact is that we're going to lose great teachers here."

As politicians and school officials squabble over loans, investigations, shortfalls and financial reserves, conversations in classrooms like those at City College - one of the nation's oldest public high schools - address more immediate jeopardy. Students wonder if they will have a football team next year, an art class in the spring or their favorite teacher for even a few more weeks. Teachers try to explain why they have voted for - or against - pay cuts, and search for ways to prepare their classes for potentially severe disruption.

Venting frustration

Using words like "reckless" and "irresponsible," Chia's students - only six months out of middle school - readily vented frustration yesterday about their school system, where cutbacks have meant trash does not get picked up and sports teams must forfeit games when there is no bus to take them to cross-town events.

"The city can build jails, it can build a new juvenile-detention center, so why can't it pay for our education?" asked Deoncya Lucas.

Her teacher didn't have an answer, but another classmate had a firm suspicion. "I don't think they care about us as people," said Brittany Logan. "They don't care about our future."

Anxiety, confusion and cynicism about unexplained deficits in the school system budget are evident even in the primary grades. These days, the morning announcements at an elementary school can bring an unexpected lesson in the city's troubled civic life.

Students at Leith Walk Elementary School, for example, have learned the meaning of the word "deficit." Principal Edna Greer taught it to them.

Every morning after she greets students over the public address system, Greer discusses a story in the news and teaches students a "word of the day." Recently, the word was "deficit."

"Every child in this school knows what a deficit is," she said.

Many have gotten even more direct instruction. Three busloads of students and parents - about 60 in all - attended last week's rally in Annapolis.

But even as the school attempts to teach children what's happening in the world around them, Greer said, it also must take steps to ease insecurities about the future.

"I tell them that every morning - 'You're fine; don't worry; we, as adults, will do the worrying,'" said Greer, principal at Leith Walk for the past 15 years.

Initial news of the school system's woes caused some of her children to cry, fearing they would lose their teachers, she said. But they have since been reassured that they will be taken care of, no matter what happens.

The staff tries to handle it as they have the war in Iraq, she said, an event that prompted another word of the day: "allies."

That's a word many city school parents are putting into action.

Karen Stokes, chair of the parent-teacher organization at Midtown Academy in Bolton Hill, said she wants city and state governments to recognize the outrage of parents. She attended last week's rally in Annapolis to support the teachers of her three children.

"Our school has a lot of relatively new teachers who could easily fall into the layoff pool," Stokes said. "They are telling us, 'We don't want to go looking for a job, but everyone is telling me that I should have something to fall back on.' They are trying their best to teach ... and this [school crisis] is a major distraction. It's demoralizing."

Tanya Lassiter, who has a second-grader at Midtown, said she first became aware of the depth of the crisis at church, when her pastor called on parishioners who had been laid off to stand. She felt anger at the size of the proposed school cuts when she realized the city seemed to have money for other projects, such as museums and theaters.

"It seems to me we have our priorities crooked," Lassiter said.

Donna Lowe-Tolson, whose daughter Jasmine is in first grade at Robert W. Coleman Elementary in West Baltimore, is also distressed by the effect of cutbacks at her daughter's school. Minus their usual support staff, she said, teachers cannot remove disruptive students as easily. The after-school program also has been cut, turning some youngsters into latch-key children. Even lunch portions are shrinking.

"School is one place that most children can look forward to a complete meal," Lowe-Tolson says. "Now they're actually counting how many tater tots they give the kids."

Elephant in the room

Teachers, not surprisingly, find the crisis impossible to ignore. Students ask privately how they will vote in union elections. They want to know if their favorite teachers are job-hunting, and want to understand why the crisis occurred in the first place.

"Obviously, this is that ... elephant that's in the room," said Dennis Jutras, who teaches American government at Polytechnic Institute. "Honestly, in American government class, we have spent minutes every single day talking about what is the update on the crisis, trying to bring it into the terms of the role of government.

"The advice I've given my students is the rest of us who are adults - teachers, government officials - we're going to have an opportunity to do this over, fix this mess and move on. But they only have one chance to be a junior or a senior or a sophomore. They don't get a do-over. ... They have to focus on what's most important, which is being a student now, and get the most from their educational experience now and let the adults handle and deal with this issue, as frustrating [as] it may be for them."

Some students, though, aren't willing to be passive observers during this unsettling time.

Back in Magda Chia's City College history class, young Robert Flanagan said his parents are considering attending their first public protest by showing up at an upcoming school board meeting, and he expects he will join them. Student body president Gregg was adamant that he and his fellow student leaders needed to get directly involved.

"There is no accountability on North Avenue [school system headquarters], and there is no long-term solution to prevent this from happening again," he said. "It's going to be our responsibility to stand up and say, 'You can't do this to us anymore.'"

Sun staff writers Michael Ollove and John Woestendiek contributed to this article.

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