Steele's promise to Douglass High


Frederick Douglass High School in West Baltimore has a proud and storied history, but by any measure, it languishes today. There are no Advanced Placement classes. The carpet in the library is taped to the floor. Ninety-five percent of students failed last year's state test in algebra.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele says "enough is enough." He is making a personal commitment to turning the school around and adding his weight to a proposal that nearby Coppin State University take over its management. Coppin President Stanley F. Battle, who visited the school with Steele yesterday, said the university is up to the task - and he wants to require Douglass students to be in school for more than 12 hours a day, six days a week.

"We want to do what it takes to give these kids the same education they'd get anywhere else in the state," said Steele, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. "I have yet to find a rationale for why we allow some schools to flounder and others not to."

He said he is planning to meet with state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and city schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland to find out "who else is committed with me."

Copeland said she already had a meeting scheduled with Battle for Feb. 13 to discuss expanding Coppin's role at Douglass, where it now pairs a handful of struggling boys with mentors. She said she is open to Steele's ideas, including the possibility of converting Douglass to a charter school, a public school that operates independently.

Battle said that ideally, he would like to create a boarding school for Douglass students, who live in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods and often have highly unstable home lives. But he said a boarding school would cost so much, it would be able to serve only a few hundred students, and the enrollment at Douglass is about 1,100.

He said the school that he and Steele envision would be the next best thing: Students would be in school from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., participating in a variety of field trips and extracurricular activities. The goal would be to get them so tired each day that they would have little opportunity to get in trouble on the streets.

Battle said Coppin is committed to working with the elementary and middle schools that feed Douglass. The university now runs Rosemont Elementary School and the Coppin Academy, a new high school with 117 freshmen, all of whom will have the chance to study abroad.

Douglass once was one of two city high schools open to blacks and the alma mater of Thurgood Marshall, the late civil rights activist and Supreme Court justice.

The nearly three-hour visit to Douglass by Steele and Battle was an emotional one. The lieutenant governor, who spent a year studying the state of public education in Maryland as chairman of the Governor's Commission on Quality Education, came armed with statistics about the dismal state of student achievement at Douglass, which he rattled off at a meeting with faculty:

Only 42 students from last year's graduating class - which had 114 students, according to state figures - enrolled in a community or four-year college. Nearly half of the students last year were absent for 20 or more days. SAT scores have been declining every year since 1999. The average score in 2005 was 668 on a scale of 1,600: 332 on the verbal section and 336 in math.

"They give you 200 points for filling out the form," Steele said.

Principal Isabelle Grant said scores on the state's standardized tests were low last year in part because there were vacancies all year for an English teacher and a math teacher. And she said SAT scores would be higher if she had the staff to offer an SAT prep class.

Steele turned to Copeland and demanded: "Why didn't they have teachers to teach these kids?"

Later, after Copeland had left, Steele apologized to the staff for his "excited and somewhat forceful" behavior toward her. He explained: "When I look at our community - this is speaking specifically to the black community, ladies and gentlemen - we are 10 steps behind, and no one can explain to me why. I get mad. I get frustrated."

Over the course of the morning, Steele heard from staff about 17-year-olds, just out of jail, enrolled in ninth grade alongside 13- and 14-year-olds. He heard about teachers giving their students food and clothes. He heard about classes with more than 40 students, at least at the beginning of the year, until some drop out.

He asked about the school's Advanced Placement classes. It doesn't have any.

He asked about the school's computer labs. "Oh, please," Grant replied.

Grant and her staff told Steele they do not want to see Douglass broken up into small schools, a move the city is planning for all its neighborhood high schools to give students more individual attention.

Students told him about unhealthful and unappealing school lunches, inadequate science labs and a class with one book for every four students. They told him they'd like to see repairs to the school's windows and heating system, and to have breakfast at school.

Addressing the seniors in the group, Steele asked, "Are you academically prepared to compete in college?"

One girl looked him in the eye. "No, sir," she said.

Then the students turned the questions on Steele, asking him about his high school days (he attended a racially mixed, all-boys school in Washington) and what he considers a quality education (classrooms filled with trained teachers who want to be there and have adequate supplies). Freshman Adrienne Hall, the student government president, wanted to know, "Do you believe that racism is over?"

"No," Steele replied. "Your current situation is a testament to certain attitudes that still exist. It's not over, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

Steele vowed to the underclassmen that he would work on their behalf. When one asked if he would put that in writing, he said, "I'm asking you to check me on it. My word is my bond."

To the seniors, he said, "The only thing I can say is, I apologize. You were shortchanged."

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