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Out with the old: Closing schools and reimagining a new Baltimore

     When you ask people what their school means to them, they think of the memories that they had: The teachers, the classes and activities they were involved in, the friends they made, and even the role the school played in the community. Bill Bleisch, a former Baltimore high school teacher, remembered a special statue out in front of his school, Eastern High School, “There had been a stone sculpture, by artist Grace Turnbull, showing a shepherd tending a flock of sheep. It was based on a poem called Tears, published in 1909 by Lizette Woodworth Reese, who herself had been a Baltimore Public School teacher for nearly 50 years.” The statue was inspiring for students who were from poor and working class neighborhoods that surrounded Eastern. When Eastern closed in the 1980’s, this large statue was moved to make room for a Johns Hopkins University medical facility. This was a sad moment for Bleisch  and the students and alumni from Eastern, but he adds, “That is what happens when schools are closed. Things get moved around. The story changes, and memories fade.”

    Today 26 schools are closing in Baltimore. They are being closed to “right size” the school district. The city’s population has been steadily declining for many years and the district, once home to over 100,000 students, is now at about 82,000. In 2013, education leaders released a report that declared many of the city’s schools under-utilized, and put them on the chopping block. 

   The school closing plan is not just about having the right number of schools for the population, but it is also part of a new story that Baltimore is trying to write for itself. After decades of disinvestment, and a recent series of protests, the city is trying to usher in a new phase that will address its seemingly impenetrable cycle of poverty. The city will renovate its remaining schools under something called the 21st century plan and launch an “innovation district” in the middle of the city. No more blight and vacant buildings, but a district where new residents will live, tech entrepreneurs and members of the creative class

   These plans exclude current residents from Baltimore’s new iteration. Current residents, most of whom are African-American and middle and low income, struggle with basic needs. These are folks who send their children to schools like Westside Elementary, which will be closing in 2016 due to under-enrollment and poor performance. Still, the school is home to an active community school program, which provides a food pantry, enrichment programs, and medical services to. Although it is not a high performing school, Westside is a neighborhood anchor. And as social psychologist Michelle Fine states, “a school is a neighborhood resource, even when it is producing devastating outcomes for kids.”

  However, the new plans for Baltimore do not imagine schools as neighborhood resources, Rather, the remaining schools in the city will be renovated to serve a new kind of resident, one that can bring more of their own resources to Baltimore, not one that will need resources. While the city desperately needs an economic boost, the current residents are not seen as central to this new chapter in Baltimore’s history. Like the statue in front of Eastern High School, they will be moved and replaced by something more useful. 

Governor saves white schools from closing

Carroll County

Carroll County, a rural county in Maryland, needs to close three schools. School closure is a problem that mainly urban districts face, but it is also a problem that rural counties also face because of declining enrollment. Closing schools is a policy move that teachers, parents, and  students in urban areas have fought tooth and nail in Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. In Chicago, supporters even launched a hunger strike to save one closing school, Dyett High School.

Although rural districts like Carroll County face school closure, the residents do not have to go to such extreme lengths to save their schools.  The governor of Maryland recently announced that he would give $4 million dollars to Carroll County schools to “buy the district some time.” The governor was quoted as saying, “They’ve had some real problems in the community, people concerned they didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for the declining enrollments and handling these school closures, so we thought it was the best thing to do and give them a little more time to try and figure out a better plan.”

This would make sense if funds were doled out equitably in the state. Down the road from Carroll County, about 20 miles away, is Baltimore. Baltimore is facing the closure of 26 of its schools. The governor has not provided any additional funds to assist the school board in its process nor to help the public prepare and to figure out a better plan. Not only is this unfair, but Baltimore’s schools serve poor and black students, Carroll County serves mainly white students. This move by the governor  shows a blatant disrespect toward a black community, when it is going through the same problems as a white one with its schools.

The governor called this move to help the rural district “common sense.” Yet, it is this particular kind of common sense that has dismantled schools that serve black and brown children, while schools that serve white children stay in tact. There is not much common sense  to the idea of helping one district and not another, to supporting some children and not others. There is no common sense in that.

This little light of mine: Scholar activism

This is how I see my work as well as scholar-activist.

Cloaking Inequity

The moment before you are served up to an audience as the attraction for the next hour is always a stressful time. Worried about whether you will be as cogent and articulate as planned and wondering if the technology will work properly is enough to occupy yourself during the verbal introductions and formalities. But during the last year of speaking engagements, I’ve faced an additional unexpected twinge of nervousness. It happens when the person describing my biography utters the words, “Sara is a scholar-activist.”

As I watch the room and see people shift in their seats, with some academics offering a slight smirk or scowl, I sometimes rethink the decision to amend my online biography to begin in this way. I rise to talk, usually about college affordability, wondering if my credibility has eroded as the phrase was spoken aloud. But I have found that as I move through the…

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From Freddie Gray to closing schools, structural racism is revealed in city policies

Just Cities

Freddie Gray is now a household name. Gray died on April 19, 2015 at the hands of the police, which set off a firestorm of protests in Baltimore. Protests were focused on ensuring that the police officers involved in his case were brought to justice, but were also a direct response to the conditions under which Gray lived.

Freddie Gray’s life was spent in Sandtown-Winchester, a West Baltimore neighborhood that has the highest incarceration rate in the state of Maryland. Over 47% of its children live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is 22.7%. It is a neighborhood that has faced economic devastation. Freddie Gray’s death was horrific and unjust, but also revealed a much larger problem than just police brutality. It exposed a system of structural inequality so deep that it will not go away with the imprisonment of the police officers charged in Gray’s case.

Structural inequality…

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How do you teach about urban education? Moving away from the white savior narrative

Dangerous mindsIt is challenging to teach urban education to students who have no experience with it. I surface their stereotypes of urban schools on the first day. They often say that urban schools are violent and scary places. From there, my objective is to undo those stereotypes. First, I give my students some history and grounding in a particular city. In my case, I am closest to Baltimore, so the focus of my urban education course is there. I also have students visit urban schools, talk to teachers, students, and other people that work in and around urban schools. They are asked to lots of other assignments, and by the end of the course, when they have reflected, almost all of them have said how wrong their initial perceptions were. You can view my syllabus here Spring 2015 HH229.

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