Kenyona J. Moore was appalled when her 9-year-old son brought a worksheet home from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School last week called "The Four Robbers." It describes how to do a card trick while telling the story of four people who rob a house and get away with it.
The worksheet is designed to prepare children for next month's state standardized tests, but Moore saw it as promoting criminal activity to children growing up in a crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhood northwest of downtown. "This is being given out to inner-city children," she said. "The assumption is they can relate to this, and that's wrong."
Yesterday, city school system officials said they were taking Moore's criticism to heart. They said they would send her son home with a copy of the booklet, asking her to review it and notify them if she found any other lessons objectionable.
"We respect her sensitivities," said school system spokeswoman Edie House.
In addition, Area Academic Officer Jeffery N. Grotsky instructed the principals at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the other 26 elementary schools he oversees to stop using the worksheet about the robbers, House said. It was unclear yesterday how many classes in the 27 schools already completed the lesson. And House said she didn't know what the lesson's fate would be in the city's other 80-plus elementary schools, or how many of the schools were using it.
Until yesterday, when The Sun and a television station inquired about the worksheet, Moore said her calls to the school principal and to school system headquarters had not been returned.
The worksheet is part of a test-prep booklet used in schools around the state. It is designed to teach fourth-graders about sequence of events, a concept they are required to master for next month's Maryland School Assessments, the high-stakes tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The workbook, called "MSA Finish Line: Reading," is published by Continental Press, based in Elizabethtown, Pa.
The lesson on the robbers makes no mention of race, but Moore argues that it could have a damaging effect on the self-esteem of children in majority-black city schools. Told that a parent perceived racial overtones in the worksheet, a Continental Press official pointed out that there are no pictures of African-Americans on it.
"It's just pictures of cards," said Beth Spencer, vice president of publications for Continental Press. She said she could see Moore's viewpoint, but "we certainly never looked at it that way."
William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the state has not endorsed the workbook, one of many test-prep guides that publishers produce and sell to local school systems. "It really is the responsibility of local systems to review those materials, to check for any signs of bias or improper language," Reinhard said.
The worksheet describes how to do a card trick with four jacks, instructing the person doing the trick to say, "Imagine that the four jacks are robbers. They're going to rob a house." The first card, sliding into the bottom of the deck, represents the first robber, going into the first story of the house. The second and third cards are the robbers on the second and third stories. The fourth card, on top of the deck, is the robber on the roof looking out for police.
The person doing the trick is supposed to continue: "Just then, the wail of a siren is heard. The robber on the roof says, 'Cops! Let's get out of here!'" Then, the person peels off the top cards in the deck, showing that "the robber-jacks have magically migrated to the top of the deck!"
The same trick can be found on several Web sites, including MysteryNet's Kids Mysteries, except in those cases the robbers are trying to escape from prison, and they are caught.
When Moore talked to her son, Musthapha Muhammad, about the assignment, she said he told her: "I don't wanna rob a house, Mommy." She said the underlying message of the worksheet to inner-city children is, "This is all you'll be able to do anyway."
"My son, he's going to be much more than that," she said.