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“When the middle-class parents—white and black—leave the system the expectation level

is lowered because many of the parents who fight and push for high expectations have gone.”



School Daze

By Rodney D. Foxworth, Jr.


Overcrowded classrooms. Outmoded buildings. Substandard plumbing and sanitation. These are phrases used by the Baltimore Sun when describing the Baltimore City Public schools.

In 1948.

Today, the city schools are largely under funded, with high school graduation rates reaching a high of 58 percent this past year, after graduating fewer than 50 percent for years. Schools have left much to be desired based on the dismal high school assessment examination scores of the students.

As the saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

The above—and more—is what a young Gertrude Williams had to contend with when she arrived in Baltimore in 1949, fresh out of Cheyney State Teachers College. Her struggles, and that of the public school system students and their advocates, are documented both poignantly and forcefully in Education As My Agenda: Gertrude Williams, Race, and the Baltimore Public Schools, an oral history compiled by Morgan State University professor, Jo Ann Ooiman Robinson, who, as the parent of two Barclay School students, was often on Ms. Williams’ side during a number of battles with the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) and the bureaucratic powers-that-be.

With Williams’ 49 years in the Baltimore City public schools as an educator, administrator, and staunch advocate – as well as critic – to work with, there is a great deal of material from which to draw from, too much, in fact, for such a slender book. But what “is” contained in these pages is essential reading, especially for those who mistakenly assume that the Baltimore public schools only recently took a dive for the worse.

Robinson’s historical research and sober analysis is paired with Williams’ personal narratives, providing both the context and much needed hindsight that is necessary in order to understand the sociopolitical forces – as interpreted by Williams and Robinson – that were at work during Williams’ reign, forces that often intervened, or at least attempted to intervene, in Williams’ crusade to better the schooling of her Barclay School students.

It would be a misnomer to simply call Education As My Agenda an autobiography – in fact, writes Robinson, Williams’ expressed fervently her disinterest in an autobiography. What Williams’ wanted was a more comprehensive story of the Baltimore public schools during what can only be described as the Gertrude Williams’ era. And Robinson delivers just that.

The end result is a simplistic, manageable (for the reader) overview of the BCPSS during the years from 1949 to 1998. And, we find that the woes presently faced by the school system have relatively recent antecedents.

For example, two of Williams’ chief concerns during her time as an employee of the city schools involve that of fiscal mismanagement and underfunding, two issues that continue to plague the school system. Recent reports by the Sun and other local media outlets regarding the city schools fiscal oversight after a Maryland state audit of 2003-2004 school year financial documents legitimate Williams’ concerns.

And while BCPSS dollars spent-per-pupil has leapfrogged in recent years, making the city more equitable in comparison to surrounding counties, the system, as evidenced by these reports, is still susceptible to mismanagement. When describing Williams’ feelings regarding the school system’s budget, Robinson writes that “while well aware of the historical and political sources of the school system’s budget burden, Gertrude also blamed [former superintendents] for poor fiscal management.”

Williams’ insights are piercing, and coming from someone so accustomed to the politics of Baltimore public school education, ought to carry weight. The 49 year public school vet discloses her feelings on the evolution (or devolution) of the Baltimore city public schools:

It is also disappointing that many of the problems we faced 20 years ago are the “same” problems public schools have today. In the 1980s Mayor Schaefer at least looked into our complaints. . . . Almost 20 years later things are the same. In fact, some things have deteriorated. . . . When Schaefer was mayor his appointees in the school system and on the school board at least answered calls and letters and would meet with principals, teachers, parents. As time went on the top school authorities talked more about our accountability and became less and less accessible and accountable to us.

What problems did Williams face during her career? They are in fact too many to count. Prior to the 1980s, the city and its school system underwent radical changes. When Williams arrived in Baltimore as a 5 foot, 85 pound novice teacher at Charles Carroll of Carrollton, schools were segregated and the system was ill-prepared to accommodate the burgeoning black student population that was a result of Southern black migration and improved employment opportunities following World War II. By the 1960s, the schools lost 7,000 white students and gained 54,000 black students, a drastic demographic change.

The tide of white and black middle-class flight was beginning, and the school system would be affected in the very same manner as it is today. As Robinson points out, by 1975 “Baltimore City was home to over 40 percent of all impoverished children and about one in five children in the city public schools were designated as disabled,” yet received less funding than all but three school districts in the state, as school funding in Maryland is based on the taxable wealth of a given school district.

And while Williams acknowledges that “brain power has nothing to do with economics,” in Education As My Agenda, she also notes that “there’s no question but that public schools are stronger when the middle class uses them.”

“When the middle-class parents—white and black—leave the system the expectation level is lowered because many of the parents who fight and push for high expectations have gone.”

Of course, those who fought alongside Williams in her many battles, most notably her fights to turn Barclay into a K-8 school and to proceed with the Barclay-Calvert School partnership, were a diverse coalition of working class and poor white and black parents, middle-class whites and blacks, and various members of the Barclay School surrounding community, including employees of The Johns Hopkins University. This group of supporters was instrumental in Williams’ various skirmishes with the BCPSS.

The city’s dwindling tax base and often indifferent bureaucrats weren’t the only obstacles for Williams. While the school system was struggling when Williams began her career, several things occurred that only worsened the system. For example, when Williams first arrived each school in the school system was equipped with a Reading Center that was meant for students struggling with their reading.

Williams and her colleagues were also mentored and tutored by supervisors that assured that they were conducting their work at an exceptional level, and the schools had many more specialists to assist the teaching staff. Many of the “luxuries” that the students and teachers had at the beginning of Williams’ career are gone, or at the least, greatly diminished.

In the end, we find that the school system has been in turmoil for some time, and if it is true that we are apt to make yesterday’s mistakes without knowing our past, then Education As My Agenda serves as a wake up call. 57 years ago Gertrude Williams made education her agenda, and here, the diminutive Williams is correctly portrayed as an iconoclastic maverick beholden to no one – not the “system,” not the Teachers Union – but the students. And, with the assistance of a “proeducation community,” Williams managed to make positive change. With her as an example, perhaps we all can do the same.

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Rodney D. Foxworth, Jr.
opinion writer & cultural journalist
Associate Editor, LiP Magazine  
ph.: 410-978-0045 and

"I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: And that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty ignorance and disease of the majority of their fellow men."—W.E.B. Du Bois

posted 12 April 2006

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According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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