Category Archives: Community

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.

Public schools and budget crises



Bake sales are being put on to raise money for buses to get students to and from after school programs. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s school system faces a $130 million dollar deficit, and layoffs are imminent. In a wealthy state, like Maryland, you might say that the school system and the city are being starved for funds. Locally, observers have said the city has mismanaged its own funds or the population loss  over the last ten years  has impacted funding.

Wherever you lay the blame, there is no doubt that the cash-strapped city needs help. As CEO of schools, Sonja Santilisses argues, there needs to be a new funding formula. The city cannot meet the needs of its students with the resources it currently has. Given the impact of  poverty has on students, the city needs more funds to provide the kinds of programming and services that students in poverty need, not the least of which are bus passes that allow them to get to after school programs.

The CEO is running the school system to the best of her ability, given then context, acting swiftly, for example when a city teacher lashed out at her students screaming racial epithets. Yet,  the fact remains is that there is not much in place to support the daily work of school staff. School staff in urban districts are used to working without, but there has never been a time where the need is so great. It is clear from the evidence from Detroit and New Orleans, the needs of Baltimore’s young people will not be resolved through school choice, nor will they be resolved by the school renovations proposed by the 21st century plan.  Children come to city schools hungry, tired, and having experienced trauma caused by the violence of inequity. They need resources wrapped around them.

Yet, states have been reluctant to provide their cities with enough funding to thrive.  In New York, for example, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity has gone to court multiple times to demand that the state legislature give New York City schools the funding that they needed, but have been deflected many times over the last decade and a half when they began their campaign.  In New Jersey, a court decision now known as the Abbott decision  provided low income districts with funding equal to wealthier districts, but ever since wealthy districts have fought the decision and found ways not to equalize funding.

In Maryland, there is the Bridge to Excellence Act, better known as Thornton, which required equity in school funding back in 2002. Still every year, advocates in Baltimore fight for funding from the state for the schools. Thornton has never been fully funded. This raises the question about what would be required for the state to adequately fund public schools so that there would be no annual battle over school funding.

The larger context is important here. The confirmation of Betsy de Vos for Secretary of Education, and the close vote to clear her nomination, suggests that public schools in general may not be a priority more generally. Consequently, those interested in public schools will need to fight hard for funding and for a vision of public education that might compel legislators to think of it as a priority. Public schools are the only institution in the country that serve everyone: youth of all social classes, of all races and ethnicities, and of young people of any immigrant status.  They provide meals, shelter, counseling, and education to young people regardless of who they are. While public schools need to be improved in many ways, limiting their funding is the wrong course of action. It would take away the one resources that many communities have to support their children.


Losing Langston Hughes


“This is for the kids who die,

Black and white,

For kids will die certainly.

The old and rich will live on awhile,

As always,

Eating blood and gold,

Letting kids die.”

–Langston Hughes, “Kids Who Die”

Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, our nation’s historic and continuing segregationand neglect of predominantly Black schools and school districts has gained a new level of attention. We know about schools in FergusonChicagoDetroit and Baltimore. The question we are now faced with is what to do about it, and the search for answers is urgent. This spring, the city of Baltimore broke under the weight of years of police abuse and institutional racism, reflected in part through systematically under-funded schools.

What has changed since the uprising that took place after the funeral of the murdered Freddie Gray? For one West Baltimore community losing a beloved elementary school the answer seems to be, “Not much.”

When Langston Hughes Elementary School was built in 1975, it was celebrated as the foundation of the community’s future, a new investment in a community devastated in the riots of 1968.

This summer, Baltimore City Schools successfully defeated the Langston Hughes Community Action Association’s desperate attempt to keep their school open.

As Baltimore vacates an elementary school, with devastating consequences for West Baltimore families, we are reminded of the words of west-side resident Aisha Snead, who in April told The New York Times, “This is the land that time forgot.”

“They have never invested in the people. In fact, it’s divested. They take every red cent they can from poor Black people and put it into the Inner Harbor.”

Langston Hughes was selected as one of several schools slated for closing in January 2013 despite the fact that the students have been meeting assessment benchmarks; despite the presence of community support and involvement; despite having a well-maintained building in good repair; and despite the deplorable condition of the school the students are being sent into. No one has put forward a coherent and credible reason for this drastic decision other than a political need to reduce the number of school buildings in the city.

Identifying school buildings for closure was a concession made to the state in order to receive facility improvement funds for City Schools. A June 26, 2015, letter from City Schools CEO Gregory Thornton to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, written after the Park Heights community made it plain they wanted their school to stay open, describes the prevailing rationale succinctly: “Langston Hughes Elementary was identified as a program closure in the original 10-year plan as an opportunity to consolidate programs to reduce City School’s building inventory.”

At a rally this spring to save Langston Hughes, Baltimore Algebra Project coordinator Antwain Jordan reflected on the reason Park Heights resident George Mitchell gives for the fate of the school:

“He believes that they picked this school and these communities because this was a path of least resistance,” Jordan said.

“Essentially, that no one cares. But from my experience in this community in the last weeks and months, that’s the exact opposite of what I see. I see a lot of resistance.… If they thought this was the path of least resistance, then they chose the wrong road.”

But the resistance—some of which has been documented by the Baltimore Brew, the Baltimore Sun and in a video by the Teachers’ Democracy Project was not enough. The phone calls, petitions, cook outs, marches, meetings, and school board testimony were not enough to change a political structure that continues to place a lesser value on some neighborhoods than on others, less value on some children than on others.

One explanation for why Langston Hughes was supposed to be a “path of least resistance” is that this subversion of democracy would be harder to sell for a school in a somewhat wealthier neighborhood serving even a small percentage of white children.

Abbottston Elementary, a school of a similar size, demographics and assessment history, but located closer to more “desirable” neighborhoods and in close proximity to the recently renovated and, therefore more attractive Waverly Elementary, was saved from the chopping block.

The fight to keep Abbottston open was fueled by interests similar to the residents of Park Heights: saving their neighborhood school. But the neighborhoods are not the same. Saving Abbottston, instead of sending Abbottston’s children into Waverly, also meant keeping Waverly seats open for new and prospective white and middle-class neighbors attracted by the new building. All this is understandable from an individual, parent-as-activist point of view. Yet the case of Abbottston stands as a perfect example of how the political process systematically favors schools with even a small minority of privileged students who bring valuable political connections. The school closing announcements were made simultaneously. Abbottston got a reprieve; Langston Hughes did not.

City leaders are sensitive to the inequity they have created in saving Abbottston and dumping Langston Hughes – a fact reflected in Dr. Thornton’s letter to the mayor cited above when he writes, “… the district remains committed to evaluating the viability of various school closures, including Abbottston,” implying that Abbottston may ultimately be closed as well.

The second reason that Langston Hughes became easy prey is its small size. City Schools documents claim Langston Hughes is closing because its enrollment is too small to support a school. Langston Hughes had an enrollment of 217 children in 2013, and then dropped to 156 the following year after the closing announcement. Last year, Langston Hughes was the seventh smallest school in the city at 176 kids, excluding schools designated for students with disabilities. Five of the ten smallest schools in Baltimore are charter schools. Of the remaining five non-charters, four have been recommended for closing, including Abbottston. The three smallest schools in Baltimore are all charters, and all three – Montessori Middle School (88 students), Independence (127 students), and The Green School (150 students) – have a student population that is over 40 percent white.

The 10th and 11th smallest schools in the city are the highly-celebrated City Neighbors Charter School and City Neighbors Hamilton. These two charters each have an enrollment of 216, one below Langston Hughes’ 2013 number. These small schools also serve a student population more white (43 and 36 percent) and less poor (37.5 and 48.1 percent FARMS-eligible) than most city schools.

One of several reports submitted to the Maryland State Department of Education on June 30, 2015, as part of the ongoing Study of Adequacy of Funding for Education focused on the impact of small schools. The report states, “It is also critical to note that research shows smaller schools and smaller learning environments have an even more pronounced effect on children from low-income families…. Indeed, in addition to improved grades and standardized test scores, low-income elementary-aged students attending small schools have better attendance, fewer behavior problems, and increased participation in extracurricular programs compared to low-income students in larger schools.”

This year, City Schools is closing a small Black elementary school with a student population 96 percent eligible for free and reduced meals because the school is “too small,” while continuing to support smaller and equally small, less poor, schools with the largest percentages of white students in the city.

We do not believe any of these schools should be closed – we believe Langston Hughes should remain open. We do not believe it is the intention of Baltimore City Schools to create separate and unequal schools, but that is what they are doing.

The third reason Langston Hughes was targeted for closing is likely an unmet demand for well-kept, ready-to-use school buildings for charters. During the past school year at least two white-led charter schools expressed interest in taking over the Langston Hughes building once it was vacated. They had received a list of “available buildings” from the facilities department at City Schools. The question of whether such a move would satisfy the system’s stated need to “reduce City Schools’ building inventory” has been delayed as both charters changed course after hearing the outcry from the Park Heights neighborhood. The charter operators’ reaction to the community was politically correct and laudable, but their original plan to move into a turn-key building had to involve some incorrect assumptions about the worth and value of the existing Langston Hughes school community. What the children of the Park Heights community need is the stability and predictability guaranteed by democratic community control.   They need their school that serves their neighborhood.

Ultimately, the real story behind why City Schools picked Langston Hughes for closing is, we strongly suspect, an amalgam of the first three reasons cited above with an additional factor that binds them together – the opaque and well-financed “development plans” for the Pimlico and Park Heights areas. Do plans for a “redeveloped” neighborhood include a school building with which to attract a charter operator to serve a gentrifying population? If so, then an empty Langston Hughes building would be highly convenient. In other cities, charters and gentrification have often gone hand-in-hand.

School closures are a national phenomenon. The stated reasons for closing Baltimore schools are the same reasons being used to close schools in cities across the country. But as groups such as the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign have pointed out, “You can’t improve schools by closing them.” Schools deemed to be “underutilized” are not empty. School closings disrupt whole communities. Children pushed from closing schools generally do not end up in better schools, and school districts often realize no significant financial benefit from closing schools.

We believe no one has set out to underserve our lowest-income, lowest-wealth Black families. It just happens, repeatedly, because our structures of institutional racism and neglect continue to churn until someone decides to stop them.   The Black Lives Matter movement has risen as both a cry of anger and a hopeful challenge to these structures. Mayor Rawlings-Blake, Dr. Thornton, and the Baltimore City School Board have turned away from this movement and from the Park Heights community in a way that is disheartening for those of us who want to believe our leaders learned something from April. We want our public schools to have something to do with democracy. We know there are more schools that will be next on the block. We are demanding more than disinvestment and neglect, and we are particularly suspicious of school closings in areas with plans for gentrification. We want more than “input” regarding decisions that have already been made behind closed doors. There are other, more sustainable, and publicly controlled options for on-going use of our anchoring neighborhood buildings and institutions. We need active community control of our schools.

Helen Atkinson, Director, Teachers’ Democracy Project,

Ben Dalbey, Parent of two Baltimore City school children,

Update on the fight for environmental justice in South Baltimore

A couple of months young people from Free Your Voicea group of Baltimore young people organized to oppose a large incinerator being built in their neighborhood, wrote a post about their organizing efforts. This month we are happy to report that they won. Baltimore has backed off its contract with Energy Answers International and the incinerator will not be built. You can read more of the story here.

What is lost when cities gentrify? How can it be preserved?


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These photos you see above are from a recent walk I took in the East Village of Manhattan. These are places that are still standing in the face of a massive wave of gentrification that has all but obliterated the East Village as it once was.

Gentrification, for those still unclear, is the influx of affluent, often white, people into an existing low income or working class, often community of color, causing increased rents and changes in the community’s character and culture as well as displacement of residents. It has swept through cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago so much so that displacement and lack of affordability characterize those cities just as much as their landmarks and cultural amenities. In fact, a recent story reported that young people are seeking more “authentic” cities that have yet to be fully transformed by gentrification.

For low income communities of color, the process of gentrification wreaks havoc on their neighborhoods. As one author describes, gentrification is “a systemic, intentional process of uprooting communities and the roots stretch back to the disenfranchisement that resulted from white flight and segregationist policies. Real estate agents dub changing neighborhoods with new, gentrifier-friendly titles that designate their proximity to even safer areas: Bushwick becomes East Williamsburg, parts of Flatbush are now Prospect Park South. Politicians manipulate zoning laws to allow massive developments with only token nods at mixed-income housing.”

This does not happen overnight or by a set of individuals looking for a cool place to live Rather it happens deliberately through a set of policies that get enacted to support change. According to Dr. Lawrence Brown of Morgan State University, gentrification is induced by a set of policies that are racially exclusionary. Such policies include the dismantling of public housing and privatizing public housing  (i.e. the HUD RAD program).  Gentrification is also induced by eminent domain and mass foreclosures due to subprime lending or reverse redlining.  He finds, “Baltimore does this in the following ways; Restricting home sales to students and faculty from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Station North; the city’s Live Near Your Work program which offers up to $36,000 in grants offered by Johns Hopkins for its employees to live in the city; as well as the mass closing & charterization of public schools so that gentrifiers can control public dollars, not have to pay for private school, and not have the same level of oversight & accountability (see Maia Cucchiara’s book Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities).  These exclusionary policies unfairly advantage disproportionately white and incoming residents at the expense of disproportionately black and poor current residents, creating an exclusionary corridor in center of Baltimore.  BleeckeratCarmine10Years

      What can be done? One way neighborhoods can be preserved is through through community land trusts, non-profit, and often cooperatively owned, organizations that own and take care of property. Many cities have examples that need to be supported and expanded. See this one in San Francisco  and in Boston. Another way neighborhoods can counter the impact of gentrification is by surfacing the stories that are lost in the process of gentrification.  Telling the stories of the places that once existed, places that were centers of communities is important as gentrification erases the names and places that once existed in low income communities.  The Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia is telling the stories of schools that have closed through the process of gentrification and privatization of the school system.

There are also local groups working to take charge of the decision-making around urban development in their cities. The Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment (BRACE) organizes in Baltimore and creates spaces for communities to advocate for community-based decision making in urban planning. United Workers, a Baltimore-based organizing group, does the same. Find these groups in your city and decide what you want your neighborhood to look like, or share a story that got lost when your neighborhood’s demographics changed.