The Towerlight highlights school closings work

PANELISTS TACKLE RACIAL INJUSTICE, BALTIMORE SCHOOL CLOSINGS

By: Nilo Exar, Staff Writer

Students and guest panelists gathered Monday, March 23 to discuss the potential closings of some Baltimore City Schools and the role of racial inequality in education.

A video, entitled “School’s Out,” was shown before the panel discussion.  The video was co-produced by TU assistant professor Jessica Shiller and her “The Possibilities and Challenges of Reforming Urban Schools” honors college students. The video touched on issues like the lack of a community and city relationship when closing schools, as well as the general racial issues surrounding school closings and the greater racial injustice that the schools closings represented.

After the video, panelists including Johns Hopkins associate professor Lester Spence, Morgan State professor Lawrence Brown, Jamal Jones of the Baltimore Algebra Project and Ryan Good, a doctoral student at Rutgers, discussed both Baltimore and the country’s history of racial discrimination.

According to Spence, many of the cities where many schools are closed have high rates of segregation and removal of black population.

“117 of 188 schools [in Baltimore City] are 99 percent or more Black,” Brown said.

Spence also talked about racial zoning, which refers to the period when African-Americans were restricted from living in certain neighborhoods, as well as redlining, when banks refused to give mortgages to minorities.  He said that this discrimination still occurs in the closing of schools.

“14 of the top 20 cities for school closings are in top cities for segregation,” Brown said.

Schools are closed down when they are under a 71 person in the utilization formula, according to Spence. This can mean that schools perform poorly on standardized tests and general academic performance.  However, usually these schools are already being slighted in terms of funding.  Jones, who went through Baltimore City Schools himself, attested to the existence of this.

Another reason city schools can’t succeed is the lack of permanent teachers and administrators at the schools.

“There’s a lot of leaving that happens,” Jones said.  He said that many teachers are brought in through Teach for America, but leave at the end of their time because they are drained, which creates a revolving door for teachers and faculty.

The panelists also looked at outcomes of community-based schools being closed.

“Getting rid of schools perpetuates this other history of not knowing where you’re from,” Jones said.

He said that having deep and truthful conversations about the racial issues behind school closings is the first step to bettering the situation.

Students of Shiller’s seminar class were in attendance at the panel discussion.  Junior exercise science major Daniel Andrades spoke to the value that educating about such issues plays in motivating people to help the cause.

“Before we came to class we had no idea what the policies were about the schools, we had no idea about Jim Crow and how it actually affected what’s happening today,” Andrades said.

“I think this program also really showed the inequalities that go into urban schools, and not just education itself but housing, neighborhoods, [and] the distribution of wealth,” junior psychology and sociology major Maia Williams said.

http://thetowerlight.com/panelists-tackle-racial-injustice-baltimore-school-closings/

Public schools and budget crises

 

bec-for-our-kids

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.

 

Schools continue to close in Baltimore…

renaissance_academy_will_remain_closed_w_0_27422622_ver1-0_640_480    Recently the CEO of Baltimore schools declared that Renaissance High School would close. Baltimore has been suffering with school closure for the past few years as the implementation of the 21st century plan to improve school buildings gets put into practice. The plan, initiated in 2012, was meant to renovate all city school buildings, many of which are old and falling apart. Money from the state of Maryland was provided for this endeavor on the condition that the city school system agreed to close its most under-utilized schools. To gain the funding for renovation, the city schools agreed and the process of school closure began in earnest in 2013. Several schools have closed including Langston Hughes Elementary school, a recently renovated building in the Park Heights neighborhood of the city. The school had air conditioning and was in great condition, but it was under-enrolled. It was built for over 300 students and only had 176 when it closed. The announcement of the school closing produced an exodus from the school, local activists argued, not the other way around.

Under the 21st century plan, 26 schools in total are going to close. The students attending closed schools are sent to existing school buildings, merging the two small schools, and swelling their numbers. Two schools that combined recently, Westside Elementary and John Eager Howard Elementary now have over 400 students, for instance. This causes challenges in terms of school climate. The students do not know each other, the staff does not know all of the students, and the larger environment is not conducive to personalization. There are misunderstandings, fights, and little time to resolve conflict and build positive school culture. Still, we know from research that personalization helps students, especially low income students, learn because it allows for the teacher-student relationship to thrive, to pinpoint academic and social emotional needs that students bring to the classroom, and to build the connection that students have to school.

Consequently, this is a situation in which policy is colliding with what research says is best for children. Since over 80% of Baltimore’s public school students are low income, it would make sense to provide environments that allow for personalization to exist. Even the CEO of Baltimore schools agreed that there needs to be more attention to  improving school climate. Yet, the school system is unable to provide those small school environments because of  two key constraints. One is financial. It is expensive to maintain school buildings, and with school budgets being slashed every year, it is even more difficult. The ACLU of Maryland is one organization that works to ensure that the city schools receive the funding that they are due. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not work as well, but pushing for overall increased funds is certainly an organizing effort in which everyone who connects with city schools should be engaged.

The second is that the city promised the state that it would reduce the number of schools.  This is also an important argument. The city must hold its side of the agreement with the state. Yet, there were real unintended consequences with closing schools, not the least of which are the school climate issues mentioned above. Just the process alone of informing communities that their schools are closing has caused an uproar in every school community facing a closing. Merging schools In the case of Renaissance High School, the school was slated for closure some time ago. In 2015 Renaissance was on the closure list, but was taken off when there was pushback from the school community. The city school board has been sensitive to some of the concerns expressed by community members since the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray, a young Black man who died in police custody in April 2015. At that time, thousands of city residents, including young people, took to the streets protesting police brutality and the conditions that have produced limited opportunities and police violence in Black communities for decades. Even the federal government has felt some sympathy with Baltimore’s communities and Renaissance specifically. Following a stabbing at the school, the US Department of Education gave a grant to Renaissance in September of this year to “recover and to re-establish safe learning environments where all children can focus on getting a great education.” A couple of months later, the CEO announced that the school would close unless it could be relocated. This has posed a new set of problems to resolve.

In many ways this is an example of why urban school reform is so difficult. The policy does not emerge from research and the research does not matter when it comes to decisions that need to be made quickly and with limited resources.  That said, strong relationships and trust are central to school success. In so many of the school board hearings about closing schools, students, teachers, and parents have testified how the school is like a family to them and that they have very special relationships within the school community. While some might dismiss this testimony as nothing more than sentimentality, their pleas have been about salvaging the very elements that make school places that work for communities.

What should be done? What is a cash-strapped city to do to create school environments that support students and communities? The first order of business could be to deal with the issues openly and honestly.  Explaining the conundrum that the city is in and the role that the 21st century plan plays is important for everyone to understand. Another step could be to have a process for working out what happens to schools when they need to close and/or merge and to have an open and transparent process for decision making, and a set of supports and procedures in place so that schools are not on their own to sort out the climate issues that come from absorbing hundreds of new students. I have seen this first hand and it is very challenging for schools. One idea would be to have smaller academies within the larger schools and teams of teachers (and community partners) that work together to support those students very directly. This would require the central office (along with community partners) to focus much of its efforts on helping school staff do this, but if Baltimore’s schools are going to move forward positively from its school closure dilemma, they may not have a choice.

 

What do schools do post presidential election?

By now the election of 2016 is over. Donald Trump is the president elect of the United States. Leading up to the election, the country was engaged– or at least glued to social media– as this election was like no other. There were personal attacks, accusations of law-breaking, tampering to gain the advantage, and grandiose promises. Comedians took this and ran. Saturday Night Live may have had its most-watched series of episodes as it lampooned the debates between the candidates.  As adults were consumed with every move that Trump and Clinton made this fall, young people were as well. In response, schools across the country held discussions, civics lessons, and mock elections. It was a great time to be a teacher of English and social studies as it was an incredible opportunity to teach debate, rhetoric, government, and the electoral process.

However, this election was also filled with discrimination and hate. There was talk of inner cities as “hell,” banning Muslims from entering the country, and objectifying and belittling of women. The election also elevated talk of law and order in response to police brutality and immigrants as dangerous.  For the most part, Trump grabbed the headlines for making these insulting remarks about race, class, and gender, and young people were listening . For schools, it was an opportunity for all teachers to discuss systemic oppression as well as tolerance  with their students in the classroom.

controvery-in-classroom

As a teacher educator and partner to public schools, I saw teachers engage in dialogue  about civics and debate as well we tolerance and hate.  There were resources flying around the internet and discussions about how to teach the election. Some teachers shared their own feelings with students to open up the classroom dialogue, to make discussions less abstract, and more personal about the country’s current state and its future. As the election ended, however, things become more tense. In my blue state of Maryland, many teachers were very surprised that Trump would be elected. Many students were too, and came to school on November 9, 2016 with tears, questions, and fear as well. Teachers were tasked with helping students as young as 5 with discussing the election. In my own children’s schools, there were amazing discussions about feeling about the election, how the electoral college works, how Trump won, and implications of his presidency. With so many students and teachers who felt the same way about the election, the classrooms were by and large peaceful, safe spaces for children and teachers to share their perspectives. There were many schools that fell into this category.

In other schools I visited, however, there were different things going on. In a number of schools I was in, Latino students reported students– of all other races– saying things like, “bye, bye” and “guess I won’t be seeing you anymore.” There were reports of this around the country. From California to Michigan to my own context in Baltimore, there were reports of this kind of hatred, from micro-agressions to hate speech and attacks. There were also reports of similar incidents regarding Muslim students. On the other side, there were also calls for tolerance and unity. Teachers largely took that stand in the schools I visited, letting students know that they were safe in the school and that as a school community they should all try to get along.

Of course tolerance and unity is a positive message to send to young people, but with the teachers I spoke with, it was often a defensive posture rather than a rallying cry. It was a way to avoid talking about conflict and racism. I spoke to teachers who were not sure of what to say when students in their class made racist remarks. They were not sure how to keep their Latino or Muslim or other targeted students safe. Rather than engage, one teacher told me that she spent 10 minutes letting students discuss the election and then it was onto math! There is a long history of teachers avoiding conflict. Diane Hess, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has written:

“Even when teachers believe a topic is a controversial issue, they do not necessarily include it in their curricula. When talking with a group of high school teachers about what Supreme Court cases they think deserve attention in high schools, I encountered an example of avoidance: virtually all of them said they did not teach Roe v. Wade (1973) though they acknowledged it was a landmark case and that abortion rights were still an important controversial issue in the United States. Their reasons for avoiding this controversy fell into two categories. First, some teachers were afraid that the very mention of abortion in the classroom would cause uproar in the community. More prevalent, however, was the influence of the teachers’ own views.Thus, these teachers avoided including issues in the curriculum not because they thought it was an insignificant issue, but for precisely the opposite reason: Their strong views about the issue prevented them from teaching their students about it in the pedagogically neutral fashion they assumed was possible,”(Hess, 2004).

This is interesting. For teachers avoiding the topic of racism in their classroom, it may be because of uproar, conflict, or upset parents calling the school. It also could be because they are worried that their own views may be racist or considered racist. If that is true, then we need to be really concerned as people who teach teachers and for those who supervise them once they are in the classroom. What can we do to help teachers feel comfortable with controversy in the classroom? What can we do so that they can really be allies to students who are targets of aggression and prejudice? How can they make their classroom spaces that are free for students to feel like they can express themselves without worry? There is much to say about these questions, including research and great work being done to show teachers how they might lead discussions about difficult topics. But all of it starts with a willingness to do it. Teachers, and all of us, need not to avoid conflict and always keep the peace. We actually need to actually dig into conflict and controversy and be willing to be wrong, to make mistakes, and to be uncomfortable. That will help students develop civic capacities that would assist them, as adults, in engaging in healthy political debate, which is what we need now more than ever.

 

Why is there no one in my classes from the city where I teach?

I teach at a public university called Towson University, a mile over the Baltimore city line. My students come from all over the state of Maryland, as well as from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. They are racially and ethnically diverse, but they all hail from suburban and rural communities. Why? Why are none of them from the city down the road from campus?

I wondered this in my class the other day as I began another semester teaching a course on urban education. Students take my classes to understand what “urban schools” are like. They come with all kinds of stereotypes and myths about urban schools as chaotic places where students do not care about learning and teachers do not care much about teaching. In my classes, I work to undo these stereotypes and to get them into urban schools to see the complex daily experience of teachers and students in urban schools.

With some exceptions, of course, graduates of urban high schools, like those in Baltimore, tend not to come to Towson. Students who graduate from Baltimore’s schools, for instance, often do not have the requisite SAT scores, college prep courses, or a guidance counselor to guide them through the application process. The school system is  underfunded, and has historically under-served its majority African-American population.

The price tag for a year at Towson is also another obstacle. Students need to pay over $10,000 each semester if they are an in-state resident. That’s over $20,000 per year, a price tag way too hefty for many Baltimore residents, over a quarter of whom live at or or below the poverty line.

Even if all of those obstacles were not in place, it’s not like Towson’s campus has  exactly had a reputation for being a welcoming place for people of color. Last year, students occupied the president’s office to demand that the administration pay attention to racism on campus and to act against it. Just five years ago, Towson had a white student union, whose leader was named an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The new president is trying to change the campus climate, but it has a long way to go before we welcome more graduates of Baltimore’s schools to campus.

While ironic, I will probably continue to teach courses on urban education to students who are unfamiliar with urban spaces on the outskirts of the city.

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. 

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