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. 

Reflections from an urban education course

Charlotte and Gabriel video

My students once again impressed me with this video, which they created at the end of the urban education course that I teach. This time, they did an artistic interpretation of the themes from the course. While there is much more work to do, this video marks progress on two main fronts: (1) Knowledge of historic and continued persistent school segregation and (2) An understanding of the opportunity gap that results from unequal opportunity.

Where does this work need to go? My students need to develop a deeper understanding of the education debt. Gloria Ladson-Billings explains that the education debt is different than a simple deficit, which refers to difference measured annually in things like test scores. Debt is over the long haul. It is long term inequality, transferred from previous generations and onto future generations. That debt translates quite  literally into lost wages and lost accumulation of wealth. Students who do not get quality educational opportunity lose out financially.

Debt also implies that there is something owed. Although low income students and students of color are the ones that carry the debt, they are not the ones who owe. It is those of us who are privileged who owe, who need to lift the debt burden and provide educational opportunity to all. I want my students to understand that their success is due, in part, to the loss and limited opportunity that low income students and students of color have suffered. We need to go beyond recognition of the debt, to alleviating the debt.

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.

Divided Baltimore: How Did We Get Here, Where Do We Go?

The University of Baltimore is doing a course that is open to students, faculty, and the entire community to understand the issues that Baltimore faces. Called Divided Baltimore, the course addresses issues of race, housing, healthcare, education, and criminal justice. Each week a panel speaks to the class and they engage in an open dialogue about the problems that the city faces. You can read and hear more about it here. I spoke in this class on October 5th, 2015 on desegregation in schools.
divided_baltimore

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