Author Archives: jtsland

Activism is the vehicle for school change

When I moved to Baltimore, in 2010, the prevailing wisdom was that in order to change the public schools, advocates needed to pursue one main course of action: To get more funds from the state. The schools and the city had been neglected and divested from for so many decades (which was certainly true), that the city was in desperate need of funds. Every spring there was a big push to mobilize parents, students, and teachers to ride to the state capitol and demonstrate for funds, lobby legislators, testify at hearings for  increased funding. Even locally within the city, advocates pushed for public and private partnerships and pressured the city to provide more funds for the schools.

Very few people involved in this advocacy work discussed what these funds would be used for, or publicly imagined what school should look like in the city. Maybe people were so busy describing the deplorable conditions to politicians, philanthropists, and the media, that they did not have much energy to imagining possibilities. But in reality, there was a lack of public imagination beyond some well worn, yet not so successful strategies, like expanding charter schools.

Years later, I can say that the landscape has shifted dramatically. The Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators (BMORE), a small group of teachers who have been dissatisfied with their union and have decided to organize a group of their own. Inspired by CORE in Chicago and the Caucus of Working Educators in Philadelphia, these teachers have both acknowledged that they are union members, but want to differentiate themselves from the traditional union leadership that has fought for bread and butter issues, and have  articulated a serious commitment to racial justice. This is something that we have seen in other teachers’ unions around the country, especially in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles.  It has taken a while to get a foothold in Baltimore. This small group has grown slowly, but really started to hit their stride this year, and now they have taken off.

The recent crisis around the temperature in Baltimore’s schools has changed the context, and people who have been dissatisfied with the school system for many years have Black teacher matterdecided to get involved, attend meetings, go to events and demonstrations. When the schools had to close in January because there was no heat in many of them, and there was fundraising for space heaters and warm coats for students and classrooms people had had enough. BMORE was right there at the January school board meeting and testified about these unacceptable conditions. They are now working on a legislative agenda at the state level as well as ongoing activism within Baltimore’s schools to ensure that there are more teachers of color, more culturally responsive curricula, and more communication and transparency from the school district about decision-making.

This week BMORE is organizing a week of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside similar events nationwide. Next on their agenda will be pushing for legislation to earmark funding that gets generated from a local casino to go to public schools. The momentum is building to ensure that the public commitment to education has some accountability to local teachers and students. By next year, there will be a new union election at the Baltimore Teachers Union, and BMORE plans to run a slate of teachers to challenge the incumbent leaders who have held office for decades. This is an exciting turn of events in which there is a movement to advance a positive and clear agenda for public schools, not one that simply criticizes. BMORE is working in partnership with the youth at the Baltimore Algebra Project, and has the power to grow much more, and more than anything Baltimore has seen in many years has the power to change public schools in the city.

In the news….

Screenshot 2017-12-18 14.45.22    Recently, I wrote an op-ed in a local online magazine called The Baltimore Brew. I wrote about the state of Maryland’s appointed commission to address education inequity, The Kirwan Commission. Kirwan, as it is known locally, had as its main charge to deal with funding inequity in the state to address disparities between poor and affluent school districts. In Maryland, this comes down to a decision to fully fund Baltimore’s, mostly Black schools. The commission had a year to come up with a new funding plan, and did not. This was disappointing to many, but as I say in the piece, there is not enough political will to pressure the commission into coming up with a solution to this issue.  Rather, we are content to demonize the poorest, and Blackest communities, leaving them without the funding needed to educate and support children.

I was happy to see that a lot of people read my article, and it got me recognized in several other local media outlets. I appeared on Maryland Public Television, debating the issue of school funding as well as the Real News Network, and The Baltimore Sun. I was also able to make the case again that school closings are linked to the problems of funding because the lack of adequate funds have drained the schools of resources for years, causing their inability to meet student needs. What continues to happen in Baltimore is closing of schools that are in the center of Black communities, leaving them without community resources.

Of course, it is great that the local media is picking up this story, but there are still not enough people engaged in the debate and conversation about school funding and school closings. It is a larger conversation about whether we value public education, and for whom we think public education should be available. We need to all invest in this dialogue. Without public education, many young people (mainly Black and Brown) and their families would not have access to food, social services, community space, organized recreational activities, as well as schooling. The time is now to engage so that we can advocate for racial equity in public education.

Bringing wisdom from D. Watkins

Screenshot 2017-11-08 08.49.16

I teach a course focused on urban education and racial equity at Towson University. I have mostly white students, and so I try to embed them in the experience of working in Baltimore’s schools, which are mainly Black. Another thing that we do is read from multiple perspectives and hear from Black authors, community organizers, and teachers. Yesterday we were lucky to have D. Watkins visit our classroom. We also invited middle and high school students that we work with to attend this session as well. The collective conversation was amazing to watch, but mostly we listened and learned. Watch some of the video here:



Envisioning equity

Screenshot 2017-10-20 15.00.25 The idea of equity is something that I have been hearing a of people talking about in schools and at the university.  With the failure of policies like No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, and Race to the Top to “fix schools” and solve intractable problems like the achievement gap, now educators have turned to equity as a possibility.  Education leaders and educators themselves have begun to realize that academic achievement will not be resolved by curriculum or testing fixes, but what do we mean when we talk about equity?

Equity is different than equality. Equality is providing everyone the same thing. Equity is acknowledging the differences between people, and providing what they need to succeed.  Equity is harder work, and forces us to examine historical and institutional nature of inequality.  Once we engage in that process, we have to go along the journey of continually checking ourselves around the ways in which we contribute to and enact inequity in our every day so  that we can interrupt it.  Those of us who are white have an important role to play because so much of what we do reifies inequity. We are blind to it often, and until we go down the road of deep self-reflection, we cannot notice how we are contributing to inequity.

For the first time, my university, a predominantly white institution, began to open up a space for dialogue and reflection around equity in education. They spent the day on October 7th listening and learning about how to apply a racial equity lens.  The whole day, which we entitled Envisioning Equity, allowed educators at public schools, universities, non-profits, community centers, to start to explore what equity can look like in classrooms, in whole schools, as part of discipline practices, in access to the arts. Here is a video one of my students made about the day. It is optimistic because they are hopeful about equity. I am a little more realistic in that I think this will take hard work, and some people will not be up for it, but I do believe it’s a start.

Helping suburban schools understand equity

Lots of people are talking now about how to “do equity” in their schools. It is gaining traction because of a failure of schools over decades to meet the needs of students of color in schools, but equity is not easy. Equity is not a program to be implemented or a best practice to be mimicked in classrooms. It is a lens through which all school practices can be seen and worked on. From classroom teaching to analyzing school-wide data to implementing just and fair discipline practices, equity is a stance that educators can take to move away from the usual practices of implementing curriculum or complying with state mandates to thinking about what is good for children and what will best meet their needs. To that end, I gave a presentation to social studies teachers in suburban Maryland about how to think about this equity lens. Teachers in suburban schools especially need to understand the notion of equity well because their demographics are changing rapidly, and given that most teachers are white, they need shift their practice to do what is right for their students.

The complications of university-community partnerships: Uneven power

This spring I wrote an article describing a university-community partnership sponsored by a university office of civic engagement that tried to be conscious of the challenges of power inequities, differing goals, ways of operating. The university-community partnership described moved through these issues together, making differences explicit yet still remaining committed to a larger project and their collaboration. You can read  the article, due out in Spring 2018 in the Journal of Community Engagement and Higher Education, here: Community partnership.

Free Minds, Free People

IMG_0916   Free Minds Free People, or FMFP, is a space where youth and adults can converge to discuss social justice and education for liberation. This year it was in Baltimore at Loyola University. FMFP is a space like no other, where folks come together to discuss praxis, the blending of theory and practice. Folks discussed the decolonization of schools and universities, ethnic studies, youth-led movements, and emancipatory teaching.

I was proud to be a member of the planning team and a presenter. But it was the youth of the Baltimore Algebra Project, who led the charge. Without them, the conference would not have come together. It was an impressive effort that should be a model for any conference on social justice. There were vegan meals, childcare, and safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ community.  There was art, music, and poetry.  And there was a march in solidarity with immigrant communities facing raids and deportation by ICE.

IMG_0918   My presentation was about how teachers are working in a classroom in the time of the Trump administration. It was a great collaboration between faculty and teachers. The well-attended workshop was an example of how folks can come together to reimagine educational spaces as well as form networks of support in a climate in which people committed to social justice are being targeted.

Kudos to the Algebra Project, and look out for Free Minds Free People 2019!


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