Michael Penny Carter, a longtime public schools and community activist who had been director of family and community engagement for the Baltimore school system, died Tuesday of prostate cancer at a sister's home in West Baltimore.
The Harlem Park resident was 63.
"Michael's death is both a personal and professional loss. He meant a great deal to me," said Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso.
"He was a great man who cared so much about neighborhoods and schools, and he brought his own vision to his work. He was also an incredible team player," said Dr. Alonso.
"Michael had been around a long time. He understood the city and had been incredibly critical of the school system and its deficiencies," Dr. Alonso added.
The son of a chauffeur and a housekeeper, Mr. Carter was born in Baltimore and raised on Parrish and Stricker streets.
His social activism began at an early age.
"It was our mother. She was a giving person. We had a spare room in our three-story Stricker Street rowhouse for anyone who was traveling through or needed a meal," said a sister, Kathalene Carey of Baltimore.
"If someone had just gotten out of prison or a child couldn't get along with their mama, they had a place to stay," said Mrs. Carey. "She always said, 'You give to give. You don't give to get anything back.'"
After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School in 1968, where he had been an outstanding basketball player, Mr. Carter earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1972 from what is now Coppin State University.
During the 1970s, Mr. Carter was a counselor for Justice Resources Inc., and later worked in a similar capacity at the Franklin Square Red Shield Boys' Club, where he also coached basketball.
Mr. Carter was also a community organizer in the Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park and Lafayette Square neighborhoods, involved in a wide range of intitatives.
He was later coordinator of the Collaborative, Supervision and Focused Enforcement Team, his West Baltimore neighborhood's public safety initiative, which examined crime and other quality-of-life issues.
But it was his role as an education activist that seemed to define Mr. Carter's life. In a biographical sketch, he wrote that "education is the key to a productive life and it will always stand as the great equalizer to the inequality and inequity that exist in our modern day society."
"He pushed education because, he said, 'It'll take you where you want to go,'" his sister said.
As chairman of the Parent and Community Advisory Board, Mr. Carter was an outspoken advocate and was successful in getting three parent representatives on each city school's family council.
"Initially, there was lots of push-back. Lots of opposition," recalled Michelle Green, who is program director for Baltimore Education Network and a former president of the Parent and Community Advisory Board.
"It may sound like a small thing, but it was huge. He was so passionate and committed that parents had a voice at the table," said Ms. Green. "I don't think anyone in the city knows how monumental that was. He was adamant. He was a champion."
She said that it wasn't uncommon for Mr. Carter to put in 16-hour days.
"He'd stay at a school as long as he was needed to mediate between principals and parents," said Ms. Green, who also praised his vast knowledge of the city public school system and his insistence that there be accountability in its annual budget.
"Michael was a very strong advocate of the parenting community and making schools better," said Michael A. Sarbanes, executive director of the Office of Engagement for the city's schools.
In 2007, Dr. Alonso was selected to head the Baltimore school system.
"He told me at the time [that the city had] gone though seven superintendents and that he had seen the 'likes of me come and go,'" said Dr. Alonso, with a laugh. "He told me if I wasn't serious about making changes, that he'd drive me back to the airport."
"We were shocked when we heard that Michael had said that," said Ms. Green.
From the beginning, Dr. Alonso said, he was impressed with Mr. Carter's outspokenness, advocacy and concern about the student dropout rate.
A year later, Dr. Alonso offered Mr. Carter the position of director of family and community engagement at a breakfast meeting with Mr. Sarbanes at the Paper Moon restaurant.
"He told us, 'You know that I'm going to keep pushing as hard as ever,' and we said, 'That's why we want you to come,'" recalled Mr. Sarbanes.
"He took the leap and agreed to be part of the team. I told him I wanted people with new ideas, and he was a great asset," said Dr. Alonso. "He also always reminded me that the work always left an imprint that will survive us. He wanted us to be bold and push hard."
Mr. Carter brought to his work his vast connections across the city and in schools and neighborhoods.
"If a kid was having trouble integrating into the culture of a school, he knew someone in the school that could help the student," said Mr. Sarbanes.
"He had extraordinary people skills. He was deeply spiritually anchored person. He knew what was important about his work, and a calm came out of that," he said. "He had lots of energy and activity. He could center you and tell you what's important."
One program Mr. Carter was proud of was Great Kids Come Back, a community-based initiative that sought to bring dropouts back to school.
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"He'd have people in the neighborhoods go door-to-door to find the kids. He pulled that program together real fast," said Mr. Sarbanes.
He was also chairman of the board of Wholistic Counseling Inc. on Edmondson Avenue, which operates a certified outpatient drug treatment program.
Mr. Carter, whose cancer was diagnosed about a year ago, had not retired at his death.
"He was still dictating and facilitating. And even though he was sick, his mind remained sound," his sister said. "Children were his hobby."
Mr. Carter was a member, lay reader and chairman of pastor-parish relations at Unity United Methodist Church, 1433 Edmondson Ave., where funeral services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Also surviving are two brothers, Leon Miller and George Miller; and another sister, Gladys Ervin. All are of Baltimore.