Cities cleave along racial and ethnic lines, and every city I’ve ever lived in proves it. When I grew up in Manhattan, there was Harlem, which was black. And East Harlem, which was Hispanic. And the Upper East and Upper West sides, which was where I and most of my friends lived. I’m white and they were, too. Over the years, I watched the formerly Jewish Lower East Side, where my grandpa used to own a textile shop with a handful of his brothers, turn Chinese. Later on I lived in Oakland, where the hills were white. There’s a Chinatown there, too.
In Baltimore the racial divide feels more extreme. Small numbers of young Jews are moving back to town, but the Jewish community at large worships outside the beltway. The Spanish speaking population is growing but per the 2010 U.S. Census only 4.2 percent of Baltimoreans are of Hispanic or Latino origin. The racial split is almost purely Black and White, 63.7 to 29.6 percent. And a fifth of people here live below the poverty line.
Baltimore City School demographics are another indication of how segregated and poor this city has become. This school year, 2011-2012, the public school student population is 86 percent black, though there are still individual neighborhood public schools – like the one in Hampden – where the racial breakdown looks more like that of a New England liberal arts college than of an HBCU. That is, the percentage of students of color in Baltimore’s predominantly white public schools is large enough that an elite college with similar numbers would tout itself as highly diverse. (Everything’s relative.) The big difference: 84 percent of kids in Baltimore City Schools come from low income backgrounds.
Given my private school background, my thoughts on public schooling are skewed. My thoughts on integrated elementary schooling are just as funky. I was born in Israel. Before my first birthday, my mother took me from Tel Aviv to New York, where I attended a yeshiva from kindergarten through sixth grade. I learned all the things most public school students would learn. I also learned about my cultural heritage and Jewish identity.
My background colored my thinking about the reports and opinions in the New York Times a few weeks ago – they came out around the time of the May 17 anniversary of the decision in Brown v. Board – about what is effectively segregated public schooling in New York City schools. My thoughts went something like this: If the de facto segregation in predominantly Black or Latino or Asian elementary schools included curricula that engaged students in learning about their heritage and grappling with the meaning of their identity as Black or Latino or Chinese, wouldn’t our pluralistic society be better off? Is it enough to prepare students for “democratic citizenship” (if that is what public schools are doing) by teaching them about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution? Maybe we would have a more vibrant political culture if we also prepared students by teaching them about themselves.*
Learning about where I came from when I was young shaped my thinking for life. Is there a better place to do that than in school? Is whitewashing personal and cultural history part of the tragic legacy of the separate but equal logic that led to forced and legally enforced desegregation?
Can public schools teach us about our complex identities? Should they? Do they?** Can it be done in schools where integration is forced?*** I have many questions and few answers. So I read.
* Baltimore-based writer Stacey Patton’s piece on Black studies in the Chronicle of Higher Education also got me thinking about disciplined approaches to teaching identity. The piece kindled a well contained conflagration of controversy when a blogger for the CHE not only questioned the merit of dissertations in the field but outright ridiculed them based on their titles. She was fired.
** Hebrew charter schools are ruffling feathers in the private Jewish day school world. I attended a panel at the Project for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) conference in 2010 that included the founder of the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn. The school cannot teach prayers or engage students in religious study. They can teach Hebrew and cover topics such as Israeli independence. (Nevertheless, I found it online by searching “Jewish charter school.”) Washington D.C. approved a Hebrew language charter school on April 25, 2012.
*** In thinking about all this, I returned to the 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s controversial essay, “Reflections on Little Rock.” It’s difficult to make sense of her thinking without knowing something about her allegiance to distinctions between the private and public realms and her critique of the rise of the murky region she calls “the social,” but it’s worth a look.
Up next, some curated links to posts on and around these issues.
The New York Times reported on March 16 on the cupcake wars at a Brooklyn public school. There’s some class conflict stirring up in the gentrifying neighborhood of Sunset Park, where the median income has gone from the mid-$30Ks to around $60K in the last decade. Other neighborhood schools in Brooklyn have similar stories, with some P.T.A.s running auctions that bring in thousands of dollars. Inequality is no good for community relations, even inside public schools. (The idea that P.T.A.s have to raise that kind of money at all is another issue.)
A few months ago on this blog I mentioned a book that changed my thinking about starting a charter school – sociologist Judith de Sena’s Gentrification and Inequality in Brooklyn. In it she reveals some bitterness about the new middle class’ rejection of neighborhood public schools in Greenpoint in favor of charters. What she seems not to appreciate is the resistance of longtime immigrant and working class communities to gentrifiers. The reasons to resist are many, not least of which is the rising costs of living that the gentry bring in their wake. An important site of resistance is the neighborhood public school, over which the old guard may not be eager to relinquish its hold.
The same dynamics are at work in Hampden, the Baltimore neighborhood where I live. The divide between old Hampden and new Hampden is so clear that it pretty much goes unmentioned. Old timers drink at Zissimo’s. Newcomers drink at Golden West, or Holy Frijoles, or 13.5% Wine Bar. Old timers buy coffee at Royal Farms or 7-11. Newcomers buy it at Common Ground or Spro. (There is no Starbucks here. The newcomers value local over corporate enterprise.) Old timers send their children to the local public school or the Catholic school a few blocks away. Newcomers? Historically, they move or pony up for private school. These days, they attempt to start charter schools or enter the charter school lottery. Now a growing group is doing what my husband and I are doing – work to make the neighborhood public school a top choice for every family zoned for it.
About a year ago I sat down on my couch and drew up a mission for an organization that was already beginning to take shape on its own. I called it Wham!, an abbreviated mash-up of Wyman Park and Hampden, two neighborhoods with lots of newcomer parents of infants and toddlers. Our first event was a playground clean-up with the principal. We’ve become regular contributors to our community organizations’ respective newsletters on the school’s behalf. We’ve connected with current parents at the school and catalyzed a move to get every conceivable volunteer opportunity at Hampden Elementary/Middle School #55 loaded up on the Baltimore City Public Schools website. We raised some cash by running a booth at Hampdenfest. We’re putting it toward painting a gigantic U.S. map on the school playground in May. The principal has dubbed us the Pre-P.T.O.
I get lots of “good for yous” and “more power to you” when I talk to people about Wham! It’s encouraging. But we all know that what’s going on in Brooklyn right now presages the kind of friction that could be stirred up here.
We know you can’t make a cupcake without breaking some eggs. If we do this right, though, we might just get some sprinkles to go with it.
I was minding my own business the other day when an African-American man – a critic – tweeted at me about the first line of this post: “‘I hadn’t much thought about the racial dimensions of education reform before October 20, 2011,’” he mocked, “are you serious?”
Well, yes. (Though me not giving something “much thought” is another man’s spending hours in quiet contemplation.) I live in Hampden, a notoriously white neighborhood in Baltimore City, the land of failed desegregation, redlining, and massive white flight. While the principal of my zoned elementary school is African American, when thinking (as I have done a whole lot) about how to make my neighborhood public school more attractive to parents like me – parents who prefer the farmers’ market to Royal Farms – race is not my primary concern. Class is.
Flashback to 2010
I started thinking about all this way before my son – my only child – turned one. It was the year To Kill a Mockingbird celebrated its 50th anniversary. And it was then, as I wondered if it might be easier to attract Hampden’s middle-class white parents to a predominantly poor black school in Charles Village than to our predominantly poor white one, that I made a literary parallel: We were Atticus Finch, enlightened defenders of equal rights under the law. Those other Hampden parents, they were Bob Ewell. Lucky for Atticus, he didn’t have to worry about the Ewell children’s bad habits rubbing off. Because after the first day, those cootie-ridden truants never showed up.
This is a caricature of immense proportions, I know. But when nouveau parents living in Hampden spot their first teenage girl with a cigarette between her fingertips and her adolescent palms around the handlebars of a hand-me-down stroller – time to check the listings in Roland Park. (Am I right?)
Sensing my mindset was warped, I decided to call the principal of Hampden Elementary and see the school for myself. We set up an appointment. I took the first hour of that morning off work. She didn’t show up.
At that point, I had ties to two fledgling parent-led charter start-ups with visions of organic lunches and Reggio Emilia-inspired ateliers. My allegiance was (as you might expect) teetering. I felt the urgency of what we/they were doing. I knew the tide was in our/their favor. But I couldn’t help feeling how selfish it seemed, how precious, how entitled, how gentry.
Determined to persist at Hampden Elementary – by 1) reading the charter school chapters of a high-priced sociology text that my boss had handed to me (pictured), 2) a tenuous email relationship I had struck up with the acting chair of the Hampden Community Council’s Education Committee, and 3) a few conversations with neighborhood parents who were thinking along the same lines I was – I cut ties with the charter efforts. “I’ve decided to take my energy for improving Baltimore schools and commit it to Hampden,” I explained in an email to one founder. That was May 4, 2010. (The other tie would prove a bit more complicated to sever.)
For the rest of the year I ratcheted down my intensity in the school department. I noticed when Diane Ravitch came to town, giving a voice to thoughts I’d had about the charter movement and sparking some new ones. I kept in touch with my new friend at the HCC. I went to some panel discussions at Margaret Brent that parents in Charles Village set up. I held onto my vision of sending my son to the neighborhood public school. A school that kept parents like me in the neighborhood well after their kids turned four. A school he could walk to.
My son started to walk that September. And that was the greatest excitement of 2010.
2011 was a different story…
Here’s some brain food to tide you over between now and the end of Thanksgiving Weekend. (I’m going on vacation.)
There’s a lot of good stuff on the problems with top-down education reform in Dana Goldstein‘s extended essay on Occupy Wall Street and public education, published yesterday in The Awl. Here’s the choicest bit:
… the 1-percent education reformers must truly grasp, deep in their bones, that we need to provide every child with a decent education—not just the ones who attend charter schools, or choice schools, or whose parents can afford to move to the suburbs or live in Tribeca. This means we should focus reform efforts on traditional neighborhood schools…
I actually don’t care whether the one percent grasp it or not. But it’s time for what there is of Baltimore’s middle and aspiring classes to realize that neighborhood schools are where it’s at. (I’m for dropping the “traditional” label, so entrepreneurially trained bureaucrats might begin to admit that neighborhood schools can innovate.) The more people get riled up to support their zoned schools, the better. Especially if those people might actually send their children to those schools.
Speaking of not giving up on neighborhood schools, did you see the Charles Village schools piece Adam Bednar wrote for North Baltimore Patch? It’s about the Village Parents’ efforts to draw middle class families to Margaret Brent and Barclay. Check this out:
“A big part of the challenge is to get people that live in the neighborhood to come through the door,” said [Melanie] Cornelisse, a former teacher who runs the elementary school’s Story Pals and Math Matches volunteer programs.
…Cornelisse, who has a son in a Margaret Brent pre-kindergarten class, said the group is still trying to figure out which parents are most likely to send their kids to public schools.
While Charles Village is a middle-class neighborhood, Cornelisse pointed out that 94 percent of Margaret Brent’s students receive free or reduced meals. That would indicate a substantial number of families are sending their children to private or charter schools.
But in doing so, those parents may be missing out on the benefits of attending a neighborhood public school, she said.
If you live in Charles Village or Remington, Bolton Hill, or Hampden/Wyman Park, and you think you might become one of “those parents,” click the relevant link and find some good people who are rallying around your neighborhood school(s). Parents in Federal Hill are on the neighborhood school tip, too. There are probably other groups out there that I don’t know about. You can always dial your zoned school directly to find out if there are ways to help out. Use the school locator on Baltimore City Public Schools website and give your school a call. Talk to someone. Take a look. And get involved (before the 1-percenters do it for you).
On May 2, Roots & Branches Public Charter School announced the end of a short lived effort to open in Hampden’s Florence Crittendon Building for the 2011-12 school year. The school’s intention to open in Hampden was brought before the Hampden Community Council on April 25. Had the plan worked out, the new charter school would have sat five blocks south of Hampden Elementary/Middle #055.
That’s my neighborhood public school. I want to make it a place where every zoned family, including mine, would love to send their children. My son’s not even two. I’ve got time. And I’ve got friends. And I’m making more. And if there’s space, people from other parts of the city can vie for spots. It’s gonna knock your socks off.
It’s in a great location – a pretty 10-minute walk from the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus and the Baltimore Museum of Art. It’s just around the corner from The Avenue, a street of locally owned shops and restaurants that attracts people from in and around Baltimore. You can gorge here on freshly made soups and sweet potato fries and banh mi. You can get Indian food at a pizza parlor and chocolate from a store that sells shoes. You can buy an original painting and attend a free reading of new fiction in the same place. From east to west you can get your baby-jogger wheels inflated, pick out a longboard, and give cloth diapers a whirl. On your way back you can get an organic haircut and the deftest waxing north (or south) of the equator. (Tell Shannon I sent you.)
This neighborhood isn’t in need of a K-5 charter school. It’s in need of some love for its PK-8 public school. (Head Start included.)
Hampden #055 is already a good school. It has consistently met AYP. The new principal, Dr. Judith Thomas, is doing a lot with a lot less than she ought to have. Walk in and you see orderly classrooms, a decent gym, student artwork on the walls, a mural painted by a parent-artist. You see teachers engaging students in their work. You see an environment where students can learn. Around 75% of students at Hampden #055 qualify for free and reduced meals (FARMS). They were born into poverty. But with all due respect to David Simon and Ed Burns, not all Baltimore City middle schools look like Season 4 of The Wire.
Like every other traditional public school in Baltimore City, Hampden #055 is suffering from budget cuts. It’s also suffering from the insidious notion that traditional city public schools aren’t places where parents who can afford not to would send their kid. The issue isn’t race. It’s class. It’s just that Hampden is the only neighborhood where people are race-blind enough to see it. Because Hampden isn’t just poor. It’s white.
I founded a group to help out with our neighborhood school revival not two months ago – during what President Obama called “Education Month at the White House.” So I was not an objective party when I heard the news about Roots & Branches’ proposal to the Hampden Community Council. I immediately emailed my principal who called me 120 seconds later. I wrote emails to our city councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and the executive director of the Office of Partnerships, Communications and Community Engagement, Michael Sarbanes. By 4:00 pm I was sitting in a child-sized chair at a child-sized lunch table in the #055 cafeteria ready to say my piece at a meeting of the Hampden Education Collaborative – a consortium of leaders from the many schools that currently operate here and of representatives of the Hampden Village Merchants’ Association, Hampden Family Center, and other neighborhood stakeholder groups. From BCPS, Tammie Knights of the Office of New Initiatives was in attendance, as was Julia Baez, a representative of the Office of Partnerships, Communications and Community Engagement. Mary Pat was there. So was a new friend who will send her son to Hampden next year, and a woman from the Village Parents who raised enough money to buy uniforms for every student at Margaret Brent Elementary – a school on the other side of Homewood Campus that’s got the same parent movement going for it that we have here.
I took the lead voicing concerns.
Why should a neighborhood with a critical mass of parental support for revitalizing a neighborhood school support a charter school, when the charter school has the potential to “cream” off the most engaged parents? What would happen to enrollment at Hampden – which is low – if a new charter school opened five blocks away? Charter schools and “traditional” public schools are funded per pupil. Fewer students means less money. What would happen to the budget? Why should homeowners support a local charter school when working to enhance the appeal of the neighborhood school has a greater shot at boosting home prices?
It’s not paranoid to think that charter schools are no friend to traditional public schools. The Maryland Charter Network Founders’ Manual – a 191 page handbook masquerading as a deterrent to initiating a charter school effort – advises founders to write annual appeal fundraising letters thusly:
Open with a story about a child who didn’t thrive in traditional public schools but has been (or could be) helped by your school or a similar school. Then describe the school and its education vision. Close with a specific request and action, such as “Please donate $25. Use the form provided or donate on our website, http://www.nameofcharterschool.org.” (emphasis added)
Why would a parent who supports her neighborhood school want that kind of solicitation going on in her school’s backyard?
Then there’s this cautionary word:
Be careful to describe the need [for funding] as the community’s need, rather than the school’s need. For example, if requesting funding for an after-school program be sure to discuss the community’s lack of appropriate safe places for children to go after school, as well as describing unique local threats such as gangs, drugs, crime, etc. that unsupervised children might face.
Deny that you have any interest in helping the students in your own school. Profess that you are helping the community, which desperately needs the services only you can provide. What the MCSN manual leaves out is the question of whether or not the community in which you ultimately locate really needs you there in the first place. (If this sounds to readers who remember The Closing of the American Mind like the moral relativist argument against colonialism, it should.)
The truth is, Roots & Branches wouldn’t have opened here. The location is tucked into a residential area with one lane, two way side streets. The person who wanted to lease them the property didn’t officially own it yet. And they came to the community two weeks prior to their deadline for securing a building. That’s not nearly enough time to get buy-in from their immediate neighbors and other stakeholders. It’s no wonder their motion was withdrawn before the HCC ever had a chance to vote.
But the whole fiasco begs the question of who charter schools actually serve. Is it the parent-founders who spend years on these efforts so their children can be guaranteed a spot? Is it the directors who are banking on salaries? Is it real estate developers who want to pay off mortgages or a school system that wants to relieve some of its financial burden?
It didn’t take long for me to realize that we could have leveraged the charter school’s circumstances for mutual benefit. But making a deal with a charter school can’t be the only route to improving a neighborhood public school. There’s gotta be another way. We just need a couple of years to work it out.
In the meantime, thank you, but no, to the opportunity to open a charter school in our backyard. Not until we get a chance to fix up the one out front.
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.
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.