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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6 Comments to “In My Neighborhood”

  1. Claudia,
    Of course I believe that public schools can provide a great education, and have for many years. I mostly attended public schools in NYC, where I grow up. Public education has changed, partially because of NCLB, high stakes testing, and conservative reaction to progressive education. I don’t know about you, but when I grew up in public school we had recess every day and a play based kindergarten, and arts educaiton My local school has no recess, even in pre-k. The kindergarten children don’t almost no play and are drilled in reading (at an age when it is developmentally inappropriate) in order to prep them for their 3rd grade MSAs. The school is run by an administration and school board that is appointed and has very little input from teachers, parents and students. Schools are trying to do better on tests, that are mostly an indicator of income and race, in order to get funds–and are using lots of direct instruction, counterproductively, to do it. Community support is fantastic, and a big part of what we are trying to do with our public charter school, which will be run by parents and teachers. In this city, if you have enough money to attend Mount Wash. or Roland Park Elem., you will get some of the perks of having middle class families fundraising and supporting the school. Probably the same thing will happen at Hampden elementary, which is great, as far as it goes. But there are thousands of children in schools that are almost completely made up of children from very poor families, who have lots of problems and issues that they bring to school and that schools are not equipped to handle. There are no middle class families to support and attend those school. And those children are tested and drilled more than children in wealthier schools, in a desperate attempt to get scores up and get funding. Those schools have little economic and racial diversity. The parents and teachers and students have no say in how and what to study, or how to distribute the fund. All of those decisions are made at North avenue.
    Unlike a lot of people interested in education reforem, and like a lot of them as well, I know that schools are not going to be able to singlehandedly address the issues of poverty and the drug war in this country. They can’t, and they shouldn’t be expected to, and they are being blamed for things they have no control over, because it is easier to blame teachers and unions than it is to look at income inequality and racism. But schools can be active participants in transforming society, and supporting children in being critical thinkers who love learning and believe in themselves and in change, and examples of democratically run systems, and to do this they must have arts and play and recess, and be democratic institutions. The overwhleming majority of charter schools are not like this…they are playing the same game around testing and such that zoned schools are, and are often run without transparency and by corporate chains, and try to destroy teachers unions. In Maryland, luckily, it is possible to create something different–and all teachers whether in charters or zoned schools are in the Union–in Baltimore there are several charters that have progressive education models, and are community or democratically run, and integrate by race and class, and serve primarily poor children with project based ed, arts and recess, like SW Balt. Charter School and City Neighbors (and who have also been able to have decent test scores, compared to other schools in the city). So, of course, charters are not the answer, but for my child and the many other children who will hopefully be able to go to Creative City Public Charter School, they can occasionally be a good thing. And they are doing no worse than all the sitting by and letting the status quo in schools continue, and are no less public in a system where you essentially pay for your zoned school with your mortgage or rent or property taxes (see the huge differences in per pupil allotment between Baltimore City and other Maryland Counties). And going to one, and creating one, is no worse than pulling your child out of a certain zoned school to move to a “better” school, or a private one, or homeschooling. What will really help children and education is basing education on the ways children learn, as shown by years of study and science, and funding schools appropriately, and paying and training teachers well, and allowing parents and teachers a voice in the running of schools. I

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  2. @aimee, I have a question: apart from the massive testing regime and consequent teaching to a test — that I truly believe disservices children– is it your experience that children in Baltimore City Schools aren’t “actually educated” and that’s why there’s a need to create new charters?

    At the end of the day every parent has to make the best decision they possibly can for their individual children. But as someone who grew up in an inner city, with a learning disability, attended solely public schools, and eventually thrived in an Arts High School, I truly believe that a public school can provide a quality education for children. My mother was also a public school teacher and I saw first hand the community involvement in creating schools where kids could thrive. And I think many many parents believe that Baltimore schools can’t, which is perhaps is the starting point for a false discussion about how Baltimore schools “fail children.” My daughter is 2. I am hoping for the best for her with public school in the future, and if she ultimately has special needs that cannot be accomodated by Mount Washington then I suppose I would have to cash out my 401K for her, or do whatever else is necessary to ensure her education. But seriously, I am treading into uncharted territory, not being from this city, so I am really interested in your thoughts why alternative schools are necessary, even for those of us lucky enough to be in neighborhoods with reportedly “decent” public schools.

    Peace and thanks!

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  3. Using a really broad brush to paint people who disagree with you as NPR loving yuppies, besides being disingenous, is not substitute for a real discussion. I am one of the people you are talking about here, and I certainly don’t like farmer’s markets or npr any more than you do, and you don’t know my reasons for wanting to start a school, nor for liking actual education as opposed to direct instruction. It is a false assumption that I wouldn’t be doing this if I was zoned for Roland Park or Mount Washington, or even Towson. Oops, dinner burning. More soon.

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  4. With all due respect to the yoga/farmers market/npr-loving parents (and I confess to being one) who fret about their children’s futures in the hands of a traditional teacher who proffers lessons from the front of a room: they need to question the sources of the “data” leading them to that decision.

    Speaking personally, many of us in this demographic are actually the products of such an education, so it’s kind of preposterous to say that kids will be ill-equipt from a public school education. I attended public schools in the bronx my entire childhood, and frankly, the only difference between the schools then (we’re talking the 1980s) and now is the massive campaign to privatize education and eliminate teacher pensions. And make no mistake about it, the charter movement goes hand in hand with a privatization movement, there is BIG $$$ at stake in education curriculums and testing. I think that you correctly characterize the disdain for public schools by many professional parents as something akin to keeping up with the joneses and appearences. Like all things, there are good institutions and bad ones – and parental involvement is one key in the mix, assuming that the school is receptive (see above comment).

    I am thrilled to see this blog, not the least which because I too live in Baltimore and plan on sending my daughter to public school in a few years (in our case up the road in Mt Washington). I remember however, looking at houses in Hampden, and checking out the local school assessments and saying to my husband “well, the kids in the Hampden school are not being ‘left behind’ – but I did find it striking how few parents we knew wanted to enroll their kids in Hampden’s elementary school.

    And I should be clear: It’s not that I look down a parent who truly believes that sending their child to a public school in Baltimore would be a detriment to their futures. We all have to make such decisions every day and I wouldn’t want anyone telling me how to parent. What angers me is that I believe that parents are making these decisions based upon false data and a lot of sketchy “marketing” about education.

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  5. hmmm… interesting words to chew on. I’m pretty much with you, if from a different angle. I think we could figure a way to swing private education for our kids financially, but I find the elitism and the sense of entitlement that private schools (and home schooling for that matter) instill in kids just appalling.

    Working with your neighborhood school is a very laudable goal. We’re across town from you, but we spent 3 years trying to improve our elementary school and 1 year trying to figure out a place with a better fit, so 4 years in total at our zoned school. The only lesson learned that you might be interested in hearing is that if the administration at a school doesn’t want to change, or sees a totally different path of change, all the hard work and research and support you can offer will never be welcomed.

    Maybe that leads to a 2nd lesson learned. The most important thing in finding a school is a gut feeling that you are welcomed there – especially important if you’ve got special needs and/or gifted and talented kids. Don’t assume that a school will welcome a G&T kid that brings up their test scores if that kid needs enrichment to keep focused. Don’t assume that the extra $ that comes with a special needs student means that teachers won’t resent having to modify lessons to match an Individual Education Plan (IEP). Once I started looking for a welcoming attitude I found things that I wouldn’t have expected – some charter schools that don’t cream and love my autistic son, magnet schools that resent kids with 504 plans. I was surprised.

    Best of luck.

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  6. Well-said, Edit. You’ve described the dilemma beautifully. I can’t help but feel indicted, given that we live in this same neighborhood and our 7 and 5 year olds are attending GreenMount, a nearby moderately-priced private school. Even so, I am absolutely rooting for you and the other parents here.

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