In Baltimore, Staying Home for School

By Jabari Asim
Tuesday, September 12, 2006; 12:00 AM

"Write something positive about our school," my son's pre-kindergarten teacher urged me when we met for the first time last fall.

As a veteran of the Baltimore public school system, she was accustomed to loads of negative publicity about her employer. As a concerned parent, so was I. For that reason, my wife approached our entry into that world with considerable trepidation. Our experiences soon justified our initial fears.

Not that my son's teacher had much to do with it. Indeed, I have nothing but good things to say about her and my other son's third-grade teacher. Both impressed me as optimistic hardworking educators occasionally driven to wit's end by a school system bogged down in administrative incompetence and a bureaucracy disturbingly obsessed with red tape. Watching them cope creatively with missing resources and unforeseen snafus -- such as school buses that fail to show up and take pupils on field trips, for instance -- I suspected there were other good teachers like them, equally challenged by the fog of cluelessness and despair that hovers in the hallways of many Baltimore schools.

Those teachers were real gems, and we were grateful to be working with them. Some other teachers seemed burned-out and disinterested, unable to muster even a smile or a greeting for visitors. We also encountered a phenomenon we'd often heard about but hadn't seen firsthand: The spectacle of white (usually young) female teachers totally ill-equipped to deal with preadolescent black boys who, we often discovered, were being raised by adults who had no detectable interest in their children's education.

When my wife held her first meeting as president of the PTA at our former school in Montgomery County, Md., so many parents attended that their cars filled the parking lot and several surrounding blocks. When she held the same event as the president of the PTA at our Baltimore school, eight parents showed up. Most of them formed the tiny but critical core of involved parents who helped organize school events throughout the year.

Even if it is only partly true, as Alexandra Robbins asserts in "The Overachievers," that high-schoolers are immersed in a "competitive frenzy" for spots at the top colleges, it is hard to see how Baltimore elementary schools are preparing kids to measure up. The difficulties found there are typical of those found in many of the nation's schools, where even the highest achievers seldom receive the background they need to compete at the most rigorous levels of higher education. But Baltimore's schools are at the very bottom -- ranked last in the state -- a dispiriting fact that isn't likely to change in the near future. Still, we thought we could endure them for at least a little while. We were naive.

So we're giving up. Our retreat began last year, when we pulled our daughter from fifth grade. We had been warned that Baltimore middle schools were no place for a girl, but it turned out that the year leading up to them was no better. My wife, who had been volunteering in our daughter's class three days a week, quickly determined that enough was enough and began to teach her at home. Next week, our 8-year-old will join her. Soon after that, they'll be joined by our 5-year-old.

With a year of home-schooling already under her belt, my wife is well prepared. Her connection with local home-schooling groups has enabled my daughter to join other students for supplementary lessons in various subjects, including life sciences and ballroom dancing. Many of these newfound allies are African-Americans, the fastest growing segment of home-schoolers in the United States, according to my friend Paula Penn-Nabrit. She and her husband, Charles, home-schooled their three sons to success at prestigious American universities, an experience described in her book "Morning By Morning."

Paula has also pointed out to me that historically, black families relied on home-schooling when public schools financed with their tax dollars were foreclosed due to violent segregation. The big difference of course, is that those African-Americans resorted to other means because schools rejected them. We, on the other hand, are rejecting the schools. And we know that we are fortunate to be able to do so, to have a parent at home full-time and willing to do this hard, invaluable work. Otherwise, we might be among the many with no choice except steering their children through that forbidding, ominous fog.

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