Archive for April, 2011

April 26, 2011

“Roots & Branches”

I’d originally intended to tell a different story under this headline – a story about how I went to an organizational meeting for a new charter school in Baltimore and wound up naming it. (I’m a writer for an agency that does marketing for educational institutions. I couldn’t help it.) This was one in a number of charter school founders’ meetings that turned me on to working with my neighborhood public school. But here’s another twist.

Last night, Roots & Branches founder Jennifer Shaud presented a proposal to open the charter school in a building on 32nd Street between Elm and Chestnut – five blocks south of my neighborhood public school.

My fellow WHAM! Parent Co-op founder Diana Shea, who attended last night’s meeting of the Hampden Community Council, reports:

ROOTS & BRANCHES – Jen Shaud, Exec Dir of Roots & Branches introduced her school to the community and her interest in occupying the Florence Crittendon building. The community’s first reaction was negative due to parking and traffic congestion issues in that area (32nd between Chestnut and Elm). The Abell Foundation had promised to build Roots & Branches a new building, but broke the deal a week ago. Jen has to propose her building plans to the School Board on May 10 so she is under the gun to find new space that she can occupy almost immediately in order to be ready for Fall. The building is being sold soon (date?), new owner was present and really wants her as the tenant. Mary Pat Clarke was in attendance and seemed to be motivated to help Jen make this happen.

Stay tuned.

April 25, 2011

NYC Takes Back 30% of Money Saved by Principals

The New York Times piece on new schools head Dennis Walcott was a rather dull Easter Sunday read for someone who lives in Baltimore. But the parenthetical tidbit hiding out in the fourth-to-last paragraph struck me as worth sharing:

It was during the short tenure of Ms. Black that Mr. Walcott took a more commanding role. He was by her side, or behind a curtain, at tense public meetings, and rolled back her decision to take for the department half of any money saved by principals during the year. (The department is now taking back 30 percent.)

Curious.

April 18, 2011

Highlights from Annapolis

First-term Maryland state senator Bill Ferguson today emailed constituents of the 46th District highlights of the 2011 Legislative Session of the Maryland General Assembly. From the email:

EDUCATION:
Despite having to make deep cuts, we, and others in the Baltimore City Delegation, made it a priority to replace the nearly $17 million cut from Baltimore City Public Schools as was initially proposed in the Governor’s FY 2012 budget. Baltimore City Schools have been making tremendous progress in recent years and such a deep cut would have been devastating to the quality of education for our City’s kids. We restored funds to education that the Governor proposed cutting, so that our students and teachers can continue their progress. As a result, public education will continue to represent 40% of the state’s general fund budget.

In addition, we created a path for utilizing surplus dollars to build new schools and renovate existing school structures. Our kids need safe and modern classrooms to learn to compete in the new global marketplace. As a former teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools, I can say firsthand that for many of our schools are long overdue for much needed upkeep. I was also pleased to sponsor and pass legislation that would give public charter schools the right to occupy existing school buildings if those buildings are no longer needed by the local school board. In addition, this legislation yielded a compromise for an ongoing debate in Annapolis about charter school facility costs by making charter schools exempt from local property taxes when these schools occupy private facilities.

Despite the budget challenges, the legislature was able to protect the $1.2 billion investment in public colleges and Universities, which will help to prevent drastic tuition increases. Keeping public college education affordable is vital to keep our kids learning and able to take the next step into higher education.

Senator Ferguson and his wife are both alumni of Teach for America in Baltimore City. You can find more about Bill Ferguson here.

April 17, 2011

Lessons from the Bronx

If you’re interested in improving your neighborhood public school, Jonathan Mahler’s cover story in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine is a provocative read. It’s about a principal named Ramón González and his relative success at the helm of Middle School 223 in the Bronx. And it’s about how the “forces of reform” that you’d think would be supporting him are working against him.

Principal González has a visionary goal: to make his school a place where he’d want to send his own kids.

Here are his circumstances: His school is in the heart of the poorest Congressional district in the nation. Many of the young teachers who come to him through Teach for America are useless the first year and great in the third, but they often leave after the second – at the end of their commitment. The U.F.T. contract allows teachers to miss 10 days of every school year and requires a majority vote each year to start the school day 10 minutes early. Parents are indifferent at best. Like all other public schools, M.S. 223 is responsible for educating the students that no other school – neither charter, nor parochial, nor private – wants to touch. What’s more, an estimated 20 percent of his students need glasses.

Then there’s this:

…The ever-growing number of charter schools, often privately subsidized and rarely bound by union rules, that Klein unleashed on the city skims off the neighborhood’s more ambitious, motivated families. And every year, as failing schools are shut down around González, a steady stream of children with poor intellectual habits and little family support continues to arrive at 223. González wouldn’t want it any other way — he takes pride in his school’s duty to educate all comers — but the endless flow of underperforming students drags down test scores, demoralizes teachers and makes the already daunting challenge of transforming 223 into a successful school, not just a relatively successful one, that much more difficult.

The folks running the reform movement from the top – from President Obama to Arne Duncan to school-system chancellors nationwide – want principals to think like CEOs. Which makes it all the more inspiring that González sees himself as a community activist.

Here is a man so committed to his neighborhood that he returned to it after a great escape – to a boarding school in Boston and then to college at Cornell. He’s committed to turning his school into a neighborhood school. And it makes sense. If the American education system is meant to prepare young people for citizenship in a democratic republic, don’t we need to commit to strengthening the communities in which the value of citizenship takes root?

You’d think. But the movement for reform sees neighborhood ties as a throwback. “His vision for 223 is in some respects anachronistic in the era of school reform,” writes Mahler. And I’ve had the same thought about my flickering fire for making my neighborhood school a top pick for every zoned family.

Like González, I want to make my neighborhood school a place where I’d want to send my own child. But the forces of reform – charters, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, “better” tests, budget cuts – are stifling. Am I trying to hold on to a past that everyone else has let go of? Or am I actually doing the progressive thing?

I have to believe the latter. What do you think?

April 11, 2011

In My Neighborhood

I had a fifth grade teacher whom I adored. Mr. Yeres. We all adored him. He was tall, pale skinned, stoop shouldered and fairly bald. He wore a ragged suit every day, with a tie. He was grandfatherly – kind as hell and highly respected. He handed each of us a hard candy at the room change on Fridays, a metaphor for the sweetness that was him. He had one way of expressing his dismay when it came to bad behavior. “Some people’s children,” he would say. “Some people’s children.”

He realized at some point that this was an indictment of their parents. And he changed the tsk-tsking phrase to “some people.” It was a shift in responsibility appropriate for children on the verge of middle school.

“Some people’s children.” I’ve been thinking about that in the midst of the national campaign against teachers. Who are those “some people”? Well, the children’s parents, of course. Where are all the parents?

In my neighborhood, the parents of school-age children are doing everything in their power to keep their children away from the neighborhood school. If they can afford it, they send their kindergarteners to private school. If they can afford less, they send them to the local parochial school. If they fancy themselves progressive they get their child on a lottery list for a charter school. The neighborhood school is the lowest of the low. Even my neighbors – the ones who have been here for generations and who are now raising kids in the same house where they grew up, the ones who think that the neighborhood school is “the best in the city” – would send their boys to the parochial school if they could afford it.

Middle class parents in my neighborhood used to put their homes on the market when their children reached age 4. They’d hope to sell and move up – to Roland Park. Where the public elementary school has a reputation for excellence. So the word on the playground says. My husband and I bought our home from a family who did just that.

But times have changed. As home values have plummeted, so has the game for middle class parents. More and more middle class families – homeowning families – are finding themselves stuck in homes that they can’t afford to sell before their firstborn enters kindergarten. What started as a starter home, a home in a decent neighborhood, a gentrifying one, even, has gone longer term. There is no Roland Park on the horizon. There is no private school option – unless one applies for financial aid and gets significant help. And there is no “moving to the County.” For reasons cultural rather than economic, that’s something this new crop of middle class families – highly educated, culturally capitaled, and only modestly monied – is unwilling to do. We are urban creatures. We like a little grit.

My neighborhood sits just west of the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus – home to the undergraduate school of arts and sciences and the school of engineering. It’s the campus where my husband and I earned master’s degrees.

On our neighborhood’s far side is the highway leading out of the city.

The neighborhood is called Hampden. It used to be a city unto itself – a mill town with workers from Appalachia who’d come up to make cotton duck for Baltimore’s then booming shipping industry. At one point, the mills of Hampden supplied canvas for sails and mailbags the world over.

The neighborhood’s white trashiness is well known to John Waters fans. This neighborhood has been fetishized and commodified as the land of beehive hairdos and pink flamingos. Now it’s known to hipsters, too, and young professionals from D.C. looking for midcentury furnishings for their Dupont Circle livingrooms. And it’s become a haven for young, city-life loving couples – married first-time homebuyers who are having kids. Look around and you’d think there was a baby boom going on. The Hampden babies of yore – born to 16 year-old-girls who hold a bottle of formula in one hand and a cigarette in the other – have given way to babies bug-a-boo’d and cloth diapered by young professionals with B.A.s, M.A.s, MPHs and Ph.ds.

Times have changed here. The impoverished and uncultured class is being met with a lapping tide of middle-income homeowners with 16+ years of schooling (– not unlike the storyline of John Waters’ Pecker). We’re well educated but we have not cashed in our degrees – and probably never will. We’re older, in our mid-30s and early 40s. That means we’re closer to retirement than our parents were when they were putting their kids through school.

And with the times, the attitude toward public schools is changing.

The arguments of Waiting for Superman notwithstanding, it’s not the teachers who are turning us off our neighborhood public school. It’s perception. Perception created by other parents. On the sidewalks. By the swings. Around the sandbox. We are responsible for the viral notion that public school in this city – regular old neighborhood public school – is for families who have sunk to the bottom of the barrel. It’s not a matter of pride to send a kid to public school. It’s a matter of shame. It’s a sign of poverty.

The charter school groups I’ve been invited to join have proferred as their greatest complaint about the traditional public schools the mode of instruction. They don’t like that a teacher stands in front of the room, the students are sitting at desks. They like the sound – because they are into yoga and farmer’s markets and NPR and foreign language films – of play-based kindergarten, arts integration, music education, and project-based learning. They also like what we all want: motivated teachers, small class sizes, and recess. Yes. Recess. They (we) want all the goodies that the latest studies show develop young brains and stimulate the creation of new neural pathways and cortical networks.

We want the best for our children. And we have been stupid enough – or idealistic and principled enough – to believe that having the best and having the most wealth need not go hand in hand. In fact, that those things might in some cases be at odds.

This blog, which I’m calling Re:education in Baltimore because I like the simultaneous looseness and specificity of that title – is part of my attempt to figure out what to do with all that.

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