Michael Carter

Michael Carter (Baltimore Sun / April 6, 2012)

Michael Penny Carter, a longtime public schools and community activist who had been director of family and community engagement for the Baltimore school system, died Tuesday of prostate cancer at a sister's home in West Baltimore.

The Harlem Park resident was 63.

"Michael's death is both a personal and professional loss. He meant a great deal to me," said Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso.

"He was a great man who cared so much about neighborhoods and schools, and he brought his own vision to his work. He was also an incredible team player," said Dr. Alonso.

"Michael had been around a long time. He understood the city and had been incredibly critical of the school system and its deficiencies," Dr. Alonso added.

The son of a chauffeur and a housekeeper, Mr. Carter was born in Baltimore and raised on Parrish and Stricker streets.

His social activism began at an early age.

"It was our mother. She was a giving person. We had a spare room in our three-story Stricker Street rowhouse for anyone who was traveling through or needed a meal," said a sister, Kathalene Carey of Baltimore.

"If someone had just gotten out of prison or a child couldn't get along with their mama, they had a place to stay," said Mrs. Carey. "She always said, 'You give to give. You don't give to get anything back.'"

After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School in 1968, where he had been an outstanding basketball player, Mr. Carter earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1972 from what is now Coppin State University.

During the 1970s, Mr. Carter was a counselor for Justice Resources Inc., and later worked in a similar capacity at the Franklin Square Red Shield Boys' Club, where he also coached basketball.

Mr. Carter was also a community organizer in the Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park and Lafayette Square neighborhoods, involved in a wide range of intitatives.

He was later coordinator of the Collaborative, Supervision and Focused Enforcement Team, his West Baltimore neighborhood's public safety initiative, which examined crime and other quality-of-life issues.

But it was his role as an education activist that seemed to define Mr. Carter's life. In a biographical sketch, he wrote that "education is the key to a productive life and it will always stand as the great equalizer to the inequality and inequity that exist in our modern day society."

"He pushed education because, he said, 'It'll take you where you want to go,'" his sister said.

As chairman of the Parent and Community Advisory Board, Mr. Carter was an outspoken advocate and was successful in getting three parent representatives on each city school's family council.

"Initially, there was lots of push-back. Lots of opposition," recalled Michelle Green, who is program director for Baltimore Education Network and a former president of the Parent and Community Advisory Board.

"It may sound like a small thing, but it was huge. He was so passionate and committed that parents had a voice at the table," said Ms. Green. "I don't think anyone in the city knows how monumental that was. He was adamant. He was a champion."

She said that it wasn't uncommon for Mr. Carter to put in 16-hour days.

"He'd stay at a school as long as he was needed to mediate between principals and parents," said Ms. Green, who also praised his vast knowledge of the city public school system and his insistence that there be accountability in its annual budget.