City school may be sign of better days for system


DR. ANDREA BOWDEN catches herself in mid-boast. She is vice principal of Digital Harbor High School. In case you hadn't noticed, ancient Southern High has now officially ceased to exist, and Digital Harbor has taken its place at the Covington Street location in Federal Hill. It's a new day, and a whole new culture, says Bowden. Then she gets to boasting about the school's benefits, and gets stopped on a dime.

"We haven't had a single fire," she says.

"Excuse me?" a guy says.

"And we've rarely had to call in the police," Bowden says.

Wonderful. The public schools of the city of Baltimore open their doors next week, and criminal conduct is still mentioned as a measure of progress. This is a good thing, since it takes everybody's minds off of academic scores. These were released the other day and continue to look like suicide notes for a city that is, in so many stirring, hopeful, remarkable ways, being reborn on a grand scale.

But so much of the hope continues to die at schoolhouse doors all over town. Two days ago, we had the Maryland High School Assessment scores in algebra, biology and government. Around the state, 54 percent passed algebra; in Baltimore, 22 percent. Around the state, 58 percent passed biology; in Baltimore, 29 percent. Around the state, 66 percent passed government; in Baltimore, 41 percent. And even these disturbingly low citywide scores were boosted by the success of four or five standout schools.

What Bowden is trying to get across is the beginning of something profoundly different. Crime is part of it, since fear has been one of the great motivators for about four decades of city folks either exiting for suburbia or sending their kids to private schools.

Take the old Southern High, for example. The place sits in Federal Hill, which is one of the city's great symbols of modern neighborhood renaissance. Housing values are soaring. Young people are everywhere, rehabbing houses, filling up restaurants and taverns and the venerable Cross Street Market, which is doing business even in the midst of renovations.

But look at the academic scores from Southern High: 10 percent of the school's kids passed the algebra test, and 3 percent passed biology. That is not a misprint: 3 percent, it is. Eighteen percent passed government, which would be considered tragic against any measurement other than the school's own math and biology scores.

But Southern's gone now; its last class graduated in June. Over the past four years, as each successive class departed, incoming freshmen were part of the newly created Digital Harbor High. It is more than a change in names. It includes a 41 percent passing score in algebra. This is not precisely cause for hosannas, but it's practically double the average city score, so maybe it's a sign of good things arriving.

Bowden, striding briskly through the school's bright hallways, offers others. She points to classroom desks: They're all equipped with plugs for laptop computers. Every student is equipped with a laptop. Everyone leaves here trained in information technology, and with a college prep academic background, as well. There's a fully functioning TV studio; students are now producing their own broadcasts. The school's media center (which we used to call "library") has Internet hookups.

"You go to class," says Bowden, "and you say to the kids, 'Take out your laptops,' the way we used to say, 'Take out your books.'"

What's more, every teacher has been handpicked, and so has every student.

Twenty percent of the kids come from South Baltimore; the other 80 percent, citywide. If a kid from South Baltimore wants to attend Digital Harbor but doesn't qualify, there are the usual options: Patterson or Southwestern. Last year, 10 percent of Patterson's kids passed the algebra test, and 15 percent passed biology. At Southwestern, scores for algebra and biology were in single digits.

You want motivation to get into Digital Harbor, there's all the motivation you need.

Here's more: Two days ago, about a dozen math teachers gathered at Digital Harbor to talk about the coming year. They all transferred in: some from other city schools, some from the counties, a couple from out of state. All declare the same motivation: They say they heard great things about this new school, and want to be part of it.

"The big difference," says a math teacher who's been here the past three years. "Kids with better skills, and more motivation. Also, the parents tend to be more involved."

Around the room, heads nod agreement. Nobody talks about discipline problems. Nobody mentions fires, or calls to police.

"Our biggest problem," another teacher laughs, "is getting shirts tucked in. Or kids chewing gum."

Every school should have such problems. In a city with so many signs of rejuvenation, it's unconscionable that so many of its schools remain troubled. Maybe Digital Harbor's a sign of better days to come - in South Baltimore, and elsewhere.

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