Douglass High documentary to air tonight
Just a reminder that tonight is the premiere of "Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card," showing at 9 p.m. on HBO. The documentary, shot in 2005, features West Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High. Promotional materials refer to it as a "sobering evaluation of America’s educational crisis." A press release says:
"Produced and directed by Oscar-winners Alan and Susan Raymond, Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card reveals troubles and triumphs in the classrooms, hallways and offices of Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, MD – from the celebrations of drum lines and debate teams to the worries of faculty who know that 50% of their freshman will not return for their sophomore year."
I'll be tuning in tonight and will post thoughts on the documentary tomorrow. In the meantime, keep reading to see a story I wrote two years ago about the challenges Douglass faced during the 2005-2006 school year.
THE BALTIMORE SUN
Douglass students want attention paid to school
Committee plans to continue effort begun in spring
Date: Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Source: SUN REPORTER
Byline: SARA NEUFELD
Graph Source: 1. - 2. MONICA LOPOSSAY : SUN PHOTOGRAPHER
Caption: 1. Ebony Peacock (right), who just graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, makes a point about issues concerning the school at a meeting of the Student Concern Committee as Dannille Foster lis tens. Seven students formed the committee.
2. A student walks past signs on the Frederick Douglass High School building in West Baltimore. Alumni of Douglass include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and entertainer Cab Calloway.
It's been a tough school year at Frederick Douglass High.
In the fall, the football team was forced to forfeit its first winning season since 1998 over allegations that an academically ineligible student was permitted to play.In the winter, the West Baltimore school became a political battleground after Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele visited and accused the city school system of shortchanging Douglass students.
In the spring, Douglass turned up on a list of 11 failing city schools that the state was targeting for outside takeovers. Then the principal was removed from her job. And some of the students decided enough was enough.
Seven of them formed a group they call the Student Concern Committee. They want the powers-that-be to know what they can do to really help their school, and why what they've been doing is not helpful.
Group members have gone on television and radio shows, met with administrators and spoken at a school board meeting to get their views across. They say they represent the views of students, as well as teachers who fear they'll put their jobs at risk if they speak out.
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.
Peterson, finishing his junior year, is one of the students who plan to keep the Student Concern Committee going next school year; three of the founding members were seniors who just graduated.
Students on the committee say the school needs more books, band instruments, science supplies and an oven that doesn't burn the cafeteria food, which, they add, is always pizza. A little variety in the menu would be nice, too.
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.
Junior Ignacio Evans, another Student Concern Committee founder, plays the tuba in Douglass' acclaimed marching band. But his instrument is so old he has to tape it together. Also, the biology teacher had to buy all her own lab materials this school year, including frogs and a gecko.
"We don't have a swim team because the pool is broken," Peterson said one recent afternoon, as the group gathered in the cafeteria.
"If we don't have books, how are we going to have a swim team?" asked Evans, 16, who competes in debate and wrestling and was recently part of a project to build a community garden.
The committee would also like some explanation about what happened with the football season and the principal.
Douglass' football team had won the city's Division II championship when an allegation emerged in November that it was using an academically ineligible player. Though nearly seven months have passed since the season forfeiture, students' wounds are still raw.
Graduated senior Edward Pullen, 17, the football team's scholar-athlete, said he's embarrassed to take a tape of himself playing to the coach at Towson University, where he plans to study computer science: "He'll say, `Ohhh. Douglass.' I wouldn't take no tape up there because it would just hurt. All that work I did. ... It feels like all that work went down the drain."
In April, while the students were away on spring break, Principal Isabelle Grant was removed from her job a day after she appeared at an appeals hearing about the season forfeiture. Officials have declined to comment on her dismissal.
At a school where many students have unstable home lives and look to teachers and administrators as surrogate parents, Grant's abrupt departure was a tough blow. Several dozen Douglass students protested outside school system headquarters one late April afternoon. Evans spoke at a school board meeting that night, saying the students wanted a chance to say goodbye.
"She helped me out when my mother left me," he said of Grant. "She extended her arm and was like, `Whatever you need, I'm there.' She pushed the papers so I could become a foster child, and now I am."
He said she believed in students who "come from broken homes or from areas where we're not supposed to succeed."
That brings the Student Concern Committee to another suggestion: The school should offer a pregnancy-prevention program. Peacock said some girls at Douglass want so badly to be loved that they try to get pregnant while still in high school.
"A lot of girls think their baby will love you," she said. "A child can grow up to hate you if you don't provide the right living conditions. Nobody tells them things like that."
Then there are the things the students say officials should stop doing, such as beating Douglass up for its low test scores and making promises they don't keep.
Until this year, the state required students to take - not to pass - four High School Assessments to graduate. At Douglass, students said they were told they needed only to sit for the exams, not do well on them. They said it's no wonder scores were so low: The pass rate on last year's algebra exam was 4.8 percent; in biology, 1.4 percent.
"What a lot of kids did was just bubble in answers and leave when they found out it doesn't count, until we found out it makes the actual school look bad," Peterson said.
The scores were the major reason Douglass was included on a list of 11 schools targeted by the State Department of Education in March for outside takeovers. The General Assembly passed emergency legislation imposing a one-year moratorium on the action.
Test scores were intensely criticized by Steele when he visited the school in February. The lieutenant governor threw his support behind a proposal for neighboring Coppin State University to manage the school and made a personal commitment to turn Douglass around.
"We were really excited because he really made it seem like he was gonna help our school," Peacock said. "We haven't heard anything since."
Bryon Johnston, a spokesman for Steele, said the lieutenant governor maintains his commitment, but "it's been a frustrating and disappointing process so far." He blamed the city school system for being too slow to act.
Ursula Battle, a spokeswoman for Coppin, said the university is still interested in a partnership with Douglass, but she does not know what that would entail.
Last week, city school system officials outlined their intent to overhaul Douglass in the fall of 2007, with next school year as a planning period. Johnston said that's too long to wait.
"To sentence these students to another year of inadequate education is totally unacceptable," he said. "This is a crisis, and it deserves to be treated as such."
Linda Chinnia, the system's chief academic officer, said it's impossible to start a new school - and that's effectively what will be happening at Douglass - in any less than a year. She pointed out that the state's plan for an outside takeover also would not have taken effect until the fall of 2007 to allow time for planning.
She also said she has trouble believing that Douglass doesn't have the books and other supplies it needs. "That's paid for centrally," she said, adding that the school needs only to let the central office know what it needs.
Peacock, who is headed for Wilberforce University in Ohio, said she hopes officials will be able to stop bickering over Douglass and recognize the contribution its students are trying to make to their community.
"We kinda feel neglected," she said. "We kinda feel used."
Sun reporter Lem Satterfield contributed to this article.
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