|The following are excerpts from an interview conducted in February 2007 after Mrs. Grant had left Frederick Douglass High School as principal. She subsequently retired from 38 years of service to Baltimore City. She currently is a Bishop in her church congregation.
Q: If Frederick Douglass is a unique and historically black school, why doesn’t it have special status in the community and within the public school system?
A: At one time, in the early 50’s - 60’s, I guess up to about the late 80’s, we were outstanding. But the area changed, the culture changed within the community. No longer did we have the principals and the teachers living in the neighborhood. You had families that were in the very low-income section of Baltimore to move into that area. So there was a cultural shift as far as Douglass was concerned. We were getting young people, ninth graders that actually never showed up for the first day of high school. You had more single parents. You had a community that was involved in the drug culture, a lot of the children were abandoned, they were homeless. The grandparents were raising the children. So you become a community, I feel, where it seems if you are not capable, you are left to die. That’s the way I feel.
THE ALUMNI ASSOCIATION worked with me very hard to raise the standards at Douglass High School. However, WE LACKED A LOT OF RESOURCES. Just before I came, The Alumni Association had gone to North Avenue (Board of Education). They were concerned about the lack of text books. They were concerned about the dilapidated building. They were concerned that we had been left alone to work things out for ourselves. There were times when repair requests were sent in and no one ever came to the building to see what repairs should be done.
The building was just recently painted by the Alumni Association. The Alumni Association came in and gave me support. They were there to work on the attendance team. They gave money for scholarships. However, it seemed for a long time we were a community that was left alone.
We had classrooms that didn’t have heat. We had several classrooms that had holes in the floor. They would never come to make repairs. The System indicated that they didn’t have enough money in the budget. However, Poly, a city-wide school, City College, along with some of the other schools had their walls painted. You walked in the library and you thought you were in a foreign country because there were so many computers.
WE DIDN’T EVEN HAVE COMPUTERS THAT WERE UP TO DATE FOR OUR CHILDREN. We were given a grant several years ago for reconstitution when I was Asst. Principal. We received about 30 computers but it was years before we received more computers because there was no money in the budget.
BASCIALLY WE HAD ENOUGH MONEY JUST TO BUY A FEW NEEDED SUPPLIES FOR TEACHERS.
There was a lack of text books. Certain text books were adopts and you could get them. But there were text books you had to purchase and there was not enough money. We had to borrow text books from other schools.
Q: How do you feel, as an administrator, that your students are not leaving school with these skills of technology. Aren’t they greatly disadvantaged?
A: OF COURSE THEY ARE. BUT HOW CAN YOU PROVIDE THEM IF YOU DO NOT HAVE THE APPROPRIATE SUPPLIES AND MATERIALS.
There were only about 20 computers in the media center and most of them were not working. Baltimore City Public School had a system of repairs. Those computers sit there broken. They weren’t repaired nor were they replaced.
Q: Do feel that the lack of resources is your biggest challenge
2947: YES. For example, they gave us a family support center to run where we were suppose to have psychologists to work with the families.
Many parents would come in and I would say to them, “Well, we will try to get you some help. Do you have medical assistance? No, I do not.” Therefore they would be left out.
Q: Is this type of support vitally important?
YES. It’s important because we have single parents. You have homeless children. You have parents who are substance abusers and many parents were dieing because they had Aids and the grandparents were taking the time to raise those children. And mind you, these were older women, sometimes men in their seventies and eighties. One grandparent had 11 grandchildren and she was 75 years. We tried to get services for her because of the attendance problems, having all those youngsters. WE DID NOT HAVE THE RESOURCES TO GIVE HER ASSISTANCE.
Therefore, in my opinion, I feel every high school should have a clinic where students can come in and have the resources of a social worker or psychologist so families can get family counseling..
Q: Do you think testing is important or valuable?
A: Testing is always valuable because it assesses what you have learned. However, it’s how you go about the testing and what you are using for the test. You use the standardized test nationwide. If you are going to do that you need qualified teachers and smaller class sizes. You need to provide the necessary resources so that your young people can pass the test. For the 2004-05 school year, I had ten vacancies in the critical areas such as English and Math. How can my kids pass the test when they were vacancies all year. Substitutes all year. The year before that the kids did well. There was some improvement. The year after that, which was the 2005-06 school year, you saw some improvement. But the year 2004-05, it couldn’t happen. Ten Vacancies? We had no English Teachers, No math teachers. I had a vacancy in Science. So what could you do when you do not have staff.
AND WHETHER YOU HAD QUALIFIED STAFF, IT WASN’T IN THE TESTING AREAS. If I didn’t have qualified staff in those testing areas, how do you expect those kids to pass the test. It does not happen.
Q: Why didn’t you have qualified staff?
Baltimore City usually waits until May to recruit for teachers. Other local schools are recruiting earlier. So therefore your best candidates have gone to better educational areas. Plus you find you will have a shortage with math now because people are not graduating from college in math to teach when they can make more money. Students are not graduating from college to teach science when you can make more money in private industry as opposed to the $35,000-$40,000 you get as a teacher. So they are not there and that is why you have a lot of shortages in math and science.
Q: Do you feel that not many people want to work in urban schools?
A: I wouldn’t say that. During the recruitment, we had a lot of young people who seemed to be interested in working with the urban youngster until they found out the problems that exist with behavior, class size, a shortage of text books, a shortage of materials. Then they don’t stay but a year. I would lose more teachers who came in full of vigor. “I want to work in the inner city. I want to help.” Some left within three months.
I had at least 66% of the teachers that were not certified. That’s a large percentage of teachers. And the large majority of teachers that were certified were teachers that had been in the system at least 20-25 years. However, your newer people were not trying to be certified. Number 1, they are coming from college going into teaching when teaching was not their primary career goal. So they are just using teaching to substitute until they find something in their career. That is why you have so many that are not qualified. So the system brings them in and works with them during the summer to give them different strategies to work with the students. But that is just a band-aid. That does not work.
When you said certified teachers or non-certified teachers, believe this: I had some certified teachers that were very poor teachers. I had non-certified teachers that did very well. So it all depends. It is the fact of loving what you do. Whether you are certified or not certified. ...I had three non-certified teachers that were very devoted and dedicated. Their students scored better on the test than those that were certified. Those certified teachers had been there a long time and think about it’s almost time to leave, why should I go out and purchase materials? However, my new teachers would spend their own money and go out and purchase things for the science class and buy whatever they needed.
So you want certified teachers. I wouldn’t want a doctor working on me that wasn’t certified. That’s not to say that the doctor who is not certified is not capable just because he didn’t pass the test.
Q: Why do you have “permanent substitutes”
With the long-term substitutes, there was really only one that was really qualified as a teacher. The others were just people who had a few courses in education and they weren’t even college graduates. They had a certain amount of credits.
They were permanent substitutes because we couldn’t find anyone else to take their place. It’s the only resource that you had at the time to keep a group of kids all year. So therefore you work with that person. Give them professional development to help them as best as you can so that they could understand what they were doing. Some of them worked very well. There was a retired person from another job who liked working with the children and did very well. However, you had some that were permanent and whatever you did they were just babysitting and trying to get through the school year.
Q: If you know what is going on in the classroom, how do you become comfortable with this status?
A: You never become comfortable. If you become comfortable, it is because you don’t care about children. I was never comfortable. I was always on pins and needles as to the academic achievement of my youngsters ... pairing teachers to youngsters. You do the best that you can with what you have. YOU HOLD YOUR BREATH AND WAIT FOR THE TEST SCORES TO COME OUT AND LOOK IN THE PAPER . There we go again.
SOMETIMES TEACHERS NEED ENCOURAGEMENT.
You walk into your classroom and there’s 50 kids in a classroom. Thirty textbooks for 50 kids. That’s discouraging. At the beginning of the school year when I asked for new teachers, we had something like 45 kids in a class. If I would come to school as a 9th grader for six or seven weeks and there are 45 of us in a class. Two of us are sharing a text book. You would become discouraged. Discipline problems take place. Then there is utter chaos in the classroom. The teacher will lose control. If you do not have control of your classroom, teaching does not take place. You are babysitting. You are trying to get discipline.
Q. How do you feel your students will fare out in the world after graduation?
A. For those that want to do something with their lives, they will discover that they will have to fight for many of those things that they did not get. And many of them do. Unfortunately, many of them wait until they are 21 when they get out in the real world to apply themselves and they find that they let circumstances cause them to be a failure.
On the other hand now, you do have students that have graduated from Douglass that will not let their circumstances hold them down.
One young men, I will not mention names, was homeless and his mother is a substance abuser. He was one of my special kids. I would hide him from his mother when she would come to school looking for him because he didn’t want to see her. Teachers would surround him because they knew of the situation. He wanted to work hard to be something and he will. He will graduate 2007.
The majority of the staff at Frederick Douglass mentor children. At one time, each of us would take the responsibility of mentoring five children. I took on 25. Most of them ended up with 25. They came before school, after school. These were the kids that wanted to be helped. And even some who didn’t want to be helped, we went after them. And they showed some improvement. So it is providing a family atmosphere for your children. IT TAKES A WHOLE VILLAGE TO RAISE A CHILD. So everyone was involved with working with the children. And it became a family atmosphere. They knew if they were in trouble they would get help. Staff members would get together and buy them clothes for the prom.
In fact, we fed our children. We had a food bank for the children. They could get groceries to take home. We had clothes for them. We had so many things that we did for the children. And it became a family atmosphere. You have to provide things to children that are neglected and want to be apart. And this is what we did. AND I COULDN’T HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT THE STAFF OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS HIGH SCHOOL.
WE WEREN’T GOING TO LEAVE ANYONE BEHIND.
YES, WE CAN TURN OUT DOCTORS AND LAWYERS.
At my Retirement Dinner, one of my students is a doctor. I have another student who graduated from Douglass is a gynecologist . The other is a doctor in education. Many of them are school teachers. Many go into the field of music, they become actors, They become writers. They become artists. So you have some students who have done very well. But my concern is that all students will have the same opportunity whether they take advantage of it or not.
SO WHAT DO WE DO? AS EDUCATORS. WE WILL CONTINUE TO WORK WITH WHATEVER WE HAVE IN ORDER TO TURN OUT THE BEST STUDENT. AND THIS IS MY GOAL.
Q. Do you feel America has a double standard for minority students?
A. OF COURSE, THEY DO.
INNER CITY STUDENTS, I FEEL, ARE LEFT BEHIND BECAUSE THEY ARE SEEN AS FAILURES. It seems like why waste my money because they are not going to produce. IT SEEMS LIKE WHY WASTE MY MONEY BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT GOING TO PRODUCE. You are taking a small portion of students that may not produce. If given an opportunity, they will be very well.
I have a concern about people spending all of their money on bright children, poor bright children. But they never look at the young person who may not exhibit that they are bright because of their circumstances. But they are bright. So I would take the underdog and work with that kid and bring him up to where he should be regardless of his economic standing. Regardless of whether he wants to do or not. He can be raised from a low standard to a higher academic standard.
We’ve done it before. We’ve had students come in with all kinds of problems. We gave them the support that was needed. There was nothing wrong with their intelligence. It’s just that they were in an environment where no one else had received a high school diploma.
They were in an environment where it was the thing to do and become pregnant and have a baby. Go to school so I can get my welfare check and when you get 16, you are out on your own. But what do you say to that youngster. I don’t care what kind of environment you are from. You can move from a low standard to a higher standard.
Q: Everyone knows that you need a high school diploma to manage any kind of advance in the world. But you do have a high drop out rate, at least 50%. How did you try to cope with that?
A: They drop out before they get to high school. That’s the whole thing. With the chemical change of the ninth graders, with the parents giving them more independence. Some don’t even get to high school.
But those who get there have problems staying because it is such a lot of parental guidance for those young. It seems like they are turning them over too fast. So the students make the decisions. If there is no one there to capture those kids and say you can do it. Then they aren’t going to do it. You have to have things in place in school to make them believe that school is going to provide them with certain safety nets.
If you don’t have the clothes to come to school, we’ll provide them for you. If you don’t have the food, we’ll give you breakfast here at school. We’ll make sure you have lunch. We’ll make sure we have someone to help you with your homework.
Q: Do you think the attendance problem had to do with the culture of the community?
A: You find the older students, 11th and 12th graders, were not coming because they needed to work. Many of the 9th graders weren’t coming because they were going to the drug culture. It was survival for those children. They have to have food. The parents would say, “I need rent money.” They had no place to stay. So many of them were helping to pay a bill --gas and electric -- or a warm bed to sleep in.
If you are in a culture where you are the first to graduate from high school, it is really a challenge for you to stay in that home and try to get food, clothing and shelter and go to school at the same time. When your mom is saying to you that you have to go and get a job. It’s survival.
Q. Could you talk about the achievement gap?
A: Our children are coming in at least 2 or 3 grades below. They come from the Middle School that way. I have kids that are socially promoted. The majority of them didn’t do well. One young lady was 15 years old and they gave her the opportunity of coming to high school. She was 15 in the 7th grade. And they skipped her to the 9th grade. When she got to high school, she was older than the 9th graders...most 9th graders are 13 going on to 14. She was much more mature than they were. I have 16 year olds in 9th grade. So therefore they felt defeated. So they didn’t want to be there.
One young lady came to me who never attended middle school and she had an attendance problem. They put this girl in high school. Social Promotion. It didn’t work. She dropped out.
Well, you have after school programs and tutoring programs for them. You have Saturday school for them. You try to get the Alumni Association involved and bring them to volunteer, trying to improve the achievement gap.
On the other hand, they don’t stay after school because they have to go to work.
Q. How is anyone going to remedy all of this.
A: I think the educational system in this country should be looked at in a different way. NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND was the first start. It was a good concept. But I think they need to look at this by others than lawmakers. You’re making laws relative to education saying what you require the state to do to come up with a test. But there are other variables that we need to look at. Which is the family, the other resources that can help the family, as well as the Legislator as well as your governors, your mayors, your congress people. It’s a whole gamut that needs to come together.
Q: Can you reflect back on Douglass. What was the best of Douglass during your administration.
A: We improved attendance. We reduced the drop out rate. We improved the test scores. We did not have problems with the discipline. You will have some but I think as the Principal of Frederick Douglass High School, we were doing very well. Our kids were taking pride in themselves. Our kids were going to the evening program and making up courses so that they could get credits and graduate. The number of black males increased that were going to college. I can say that since I started with the College Bound Program, more males were graduating than ever before. Students were taking pride in knowing that they had a chance to go to colleges outside of Maryland. Not necessarily Coppin State. They could go to the University of Maryland. They could go to Hampton. They could go to Penn State. One young man went to Moorehouse. That student took pride in that.
I had been at Douglass since 1990, so I knew we were moving forward. In fact, I was there to help write the first school improvement plan.
From 1993 up until I left, there was improvement. A great improvement. Because I think the attendance rate was 63% and by the last year that I was there the attendance rate was around 82%. We met AYP for the graduation rate. We graduated 220 children that year.
Last year we graduated 200 children. So that had improved. Before that we were graduating maybe 150 or 100 children. So the graduation rate had increased.
Q: What do you think was your biggest challenge?
A: What was hardest challenge? To get the children to believe that they could do this. To get the parents to encourage the children to go to school. It seemed like all of the responsibility was falling on us.
Q: So you thought that the area that needed work was the student’s self-esteem.
A: Yes. They have to take some ownership. It was really hard to get some to buy into it. Some would and some would just give up. It did get better.
I am grateful that my school was selected for you all to come to see a high school that could function with a large population of 1100 students even with a shortage of staff. We functioned. We did the best with what we had. We did not let a lack of resources stop us. We put everything that we could into our job from the administration to the teachers to all staff members, we left nothing stop us. We did prove that regardless of what was done, we were a school of pride, dignity and excellence. And I certainly like to thank you and Susan for being there for us to the extent that we were so family oriented that you all became part of the family.
You saw the family atmosphere of what we did. I count it as a privilege just to be chosen. Because I feel that I have done something well and I have no regrets about it.
Q: Do you miss your children?
A: We were just a family. And that is what I miss.
But I DO NOT MISS THE WORK.