"It feels like… segregation"

Speaking of “no more pencils…” According to the Balt. Sun, students who attended Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School this past year never had many pencils, books, band instruments, or lab supplies, or instruction for that matter. This is according to accounts by Douglass students themselves.

Douglass, the alma mater of such luminaries as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and entertainer Cab Calloway, has a proud and storied tradition in Baltimore’s African-American community. But the school, with a student body that’s still almost entirely black, has resources far inferior to those in the city’s elite magnet high schools or in suburban schools. “It feels like being in segregation,” said Lewis Peterson III, 17, a Student Concern Committee member who is also trying to start his own newspaper. He plans to call it The Frederick Douglass Crisis.

But it’s encouraging that in the face of such inequality, Douglass’ students are paying homage to the late Justice Marshall (class of 1925) and have organized the Student Concern Committee to advocate for something better. And they seem determined to make their voices heard.

Ebony Peacock, 17, one of the committee’s graduating members, wishes that her senior English class had had enough books to go around, and that students could take books home. She had to share copies of Beowulf and The Merchant of Venice with two or three other classmates.

Ms. Peacock will be attending college in Ohio in the fall. She is one of the more fortunate teens to pass through the doors of Douglass High School eighty-plus years after the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court. According to the most recent “report card” Douglass is failing all groups of students counted under NCLB. And virtually no students are proficient on the state High School Assessments all students are going to need to graduate. Actually, scores can’t get much lower that they were last year in algebra (less than 5% passed) and biology (less than 2% passed, a 10-percentage-point decline from the previous year).

I know, we don’t label schools as “failing” under NCLB–the PC (and statutory) term is “school in need of improvement”–but there is no other honest way to characterize the plight of Douglass’ students than the result of a complete failure on the part of responsible adults and their institutions, agencies and systems to provide anything remotely resembling the “adequate” education promised by the state constitution.

While young people’s spirit and resilience should encourage and energize us, the sad part here is nearly everything else: the adults who’ve come and gone with offers of help, the instability of the school’s leadership, the passing of the buck over exactly who’s responsible for getting not only needed supplies but needed teaching and inspiration to the school. And then there are the interminable power struggles among various actors (e.g., the city, the state, teachers unions, and rural and suburban interests) — playing out here and in cities across the land –with no shortage of finger-pointing and blame-gaming in all directions.

Readers may also recall that Douglass High was one of the lowest-peforming schools the Maryland State Board of Education attempted to take over this past spring. [Vaishali Honawar’s inclusive stories and links for Ed Week here and here.] But that wasn’t gonna happen in an election year, what with the Democratic Mayor of Baltimore trying to challenge the sitting Republican Governor who’s up for reelection.

So, now it’s June, and we are moving once again into full-throttle midterm election season for the enire Congress and for most state legislatures this summer and fall. Politicians will throw out slogans about “supporting our schools” and the like. Some will be for and many will sound like they are against “No Child Left Behind.” But once again, this week, students will leave “failing” schools like Frederick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, and, yes, even Thurgood Marshall in some communities. Some will leave for good, some just for the summer. And with a few exceptions like Ms. Peacock, these students will begin their summers without any realistic hope of attaining the knowledge or skills they will need to fully participate in the democracy these great namesakes worked to sustain and improve. Today I just wanna ask: What would Thurgood Marshall do? I welcome your responses to this or other posts this week [email: diannepicheATyahoo.com] and will post a select few tomorrow, with or w/o identification, as you request. Guestblogger Dianne Piche

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