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. 

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.

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