Hey Baltimore, Do We Need Neighborhood Public Schools?

The mural on the wall of my neighborhood school, Hampden #55

Here’s Diane Ravitch’s answer:

“Do we need neighborhood public schools? I believe we do. The neighborhood school is a place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. They create a sense of community among strangers. As we lose neighborhood schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors. For more than a century, they have been an essential element of our democratic institutions. We abandon them at our peril.

Business leaders like the idea of turning the schools into a marketplace where the consumer is king. But the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers. Going to school is not the same as going shopping. Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhod public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program.”

from The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

What’s yours?


12 Responses to “Hey Baltimore, Do We Need Neighborhood Public Schools?”

  1. I work with my local zoned school and have had a great experience. The problem is the school stops at 8th grade and then what? The high schools are not zoned. Seems like this is a big flaw in the system. I know many parents who are leaving the city with 6 year olds because they know staying in the city is not a long term options because of the high school problem. Is there any movement towards having zoned high schools. It seems that would keep more tax payers in the city limits.


  2. Khalilah,

    Oy! My extremely limited experience with parents who are founding or have recently founded charter schools is that they are neither poor nor working class. So I didn’t mean to negate founding families who are. I just revealed my ignorance. And you corrected it. Thank you for that.

    I believe every parent has the capacity to make good choices for their children. What you took me to be saying rings of what Michael Bloomberg said recently about parents in NYC who want to keep their kids in neighborhood public schools that he wants to close: “Unfortunately there are some parents who just come from — they never had a formal education, and they don’t understand the value of education.” Oy, indeed.

    It all brings me to a point I should probably clarify. I love that all parents have options. I love the idea of “a system of excellent schools.” But I don’t love that we’re letting neighborhood public schools die the death of a thousand cuts in the name of “choice.” So I’m working to promote my neighborhood school to parents who maybe hadn’t thought it was an option. If it works, and we come up with a school as innovative and welcoming and sought after as the most coveted charter schools, enrolling in a charter school will be a choice rather than a necessity.

    I also hope that no one takes me to be implying that parents who have chosen to pass on their neighborhood schools have failed the system. Not at all. The system has failed you. I’m doing what I’m doing – blogging here and getting involved at Hampden – because I want it to give me what I need. And just like all the people who are starting charter schools, I actually think doing this work at one little school will make the whole system better.


  3. Who can disagree with the comment: “Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhod public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program.”…or indeed the entire excerpt. They are wonderful ideals that Baltimore should be striving toward with all its might.

    My experience: in a Baltimore neighborhood school I have: experienced my child’s class spend 30 minutes on testing skills EVERY DAY; overheard a teacher calling an elementary child a “B*#$%” in the hallway; have not been able to easily contact a teacher about homework/learning concerns because the teacher has been forbidden to give out email addresses/cell phones and I am a working parent. Loud yelling and entire classes having recess taken away was a common discipline technique for kids as young as 7. Make that as young as 5. But the MSAs and standardized test score were more than passable so all was well on the surface (or by the only measuring stick the school system cares about). I worked from within the school, giving countless hours, and thousands of dollars. When my kids got accepted into a reputable charter school, I chose to move them – even though I was still reluctant having put my heart and effort into my neighborhood school. It has been a phenomenal change. I second the opinion that happy teachers, make all the difference; the charter school my children attend is teacher-formed, with a deep committment to meaningful professional development. It shows in everything they do and how the school teaches. I am thankful for school choice: it allowed my family to stay in a city we love.

    For those parents like myself who want urban public education to work, there is always a line of “this is dysfunctional” we cannot cross. Yes I am aware that statistically my kids – being from a loving, middle-income home with involved parents – will most likely be fine and get educated anywhere (safe) they go to school. The difference in how much discomfort and pain we ALL experience when getting there in a school that does not operate well. My personal line was watching my children lose their young love of learning. My neighborhood school is improving under a reformer principal, and I wish it all the best – but in the two-three years it will take to get there, my kids will have already passed through elementary school…and I will be faced with middle school choice.


  4. Edit Barry, I wonder about your statement “parents with means can start a school of their own.” That kind of negates the poor/working class families who have participated in the founding of schools here in Baltimore. The comment, in some ways, assumes or implies poor or working class parents don’t have the capacity to make good choices for their children. DR rails against so many things without offering clear options. She spends her day on the web attacking and posting articles or people who agree with her versus pointing to strategies or solution from her platform. Further, while I understand the challenges of choice – primarily how it glaringly illuminates the issues of poverty in the City, and how it is not being addressed – MD’s law makes charter, innovation, transformation, new initiative, etc. schools all tride and true public schools. Those schools MUST serve all children. The neighborhoods you’ve named have some distinct things in common: higher incomes, lower drug abuse and other pathologies, similar racial makeup. All neighborhoods in this city are not made equal. Schools are not just good based on some miraculous principal or godsend teachers. Although, those things really help, family engagement and expectations for children by many adults surrounding them are two of the most key factors in a great school. No one wants to send their child to a school where a deficits-based model is employed because of the socio-economic challenges of the students/families and/or the low expectations adults have for them (including inside of the school).


  5. Federal Hill Prep has the only magnet elementary school program in Baltimore – it started as part of the Ingenuity Project. It is still a magnet program although Ingenuity no longer runs it. It is open to all qualified elementary school students in the city. There might be those who disagree, but I feel strongly that this magnet program is what increased test scores and lets you cite it as a “top choice”.

    Mount Royal Academy (and Hamilton Elementary Middle) also have Ingenuity Project programs. This makes these magnet schools, like Roland Park Middle. Getting high scores and being a top choice is easier when you have academic entrance requirements for at least some of your students.

    I’m not looking for sympathy about a bad experience, I’m pointing out that this is reality and I’m not all that unique. Many folks are doing what they can to put their kids in a City School that serves their needs when there are real problems with their neighborhood schools. That reality is why schools are being shut down for under-enrollment while new school types (charter, transformation, alternative …) are expanding.


  6. The idea of school choice is flawed. Hidden within the concept of school choice is not just the admission, but the acceptance that many Baltimore City schools are inadequate. When parents are asked to choose the best school for their child, they are asked to choose their own children over other children in this city. This is a raw deal. As a parent, my top choice would be a school system that strives to provide the best education to every student regardless of whether their own parents have the means to consider their ‘options’.
    The commenter above notes that school choice is exactly the excuse that the neighborhood school used for not meeting the demands of parents. While school choice may keep more parents in the city, it also removes any accountability from the city to provide a quality education to all.


  7. I love how people (DR, not you Edit) who don’t have kids zoned to an absolutely sucky neighborhood school can speak in terms of absolutes. You MUST have excellent and mandatory zoned schools. But 100% zoned schools can very likely result in to having to send your kid to a school where they will be bullied and slip behind in terms of education.

    Am I satisfied that my neighborhood elementary option sucks? Not at all, but we spent five years trying to make it better and were basically told “Look, you have options. Why don’t you go someplace else?” Were we active in the PTO? Yes. Did we volunteer in the school? Yes. Did we demand better for our kids and for all the kids in the school? Yes. Did our kids test scores bring up the average of the whole school? Yes. Were we seen as a pain in the ass that kept the administration from turning a blind eye to some very real problems? You betcha. Did our presence change the school even a little bit? Not that I can see.

    I wonder what Diane Ravitch’s pronouncement would be on our CHOICE of moving our kids to a city-wide elementary program across town? If the system hadn’t provided that choice we would have had to either move or send our kid into a non-public school. Is that somehow better for the school system? Would it be better if I abandoned my neighborhood and gave my taxes to another jurisdiction?

    And this is in no way a rare situation. I have another kid with totally different issues that CAN NOT be educated in our neighborhood school, but who has been doing very well in a charter school that doesn’t actually hate special needs students.

    Choice is what allows parents like me to stay in City Schools. If you think that’s “Undermining Education” I can’t do much more than shake my head.


    • DR knows charters aren’t going anywhere. (You should read her book. It’s good.) In Baltimore City, the door is wide open for every single public school to be a charter or transformation school – leaving parents no choice but to go shopping and hope for a seat in their top choice charter. Right now, parents can choose to sign up for a lottery. Parents with means can start a school of their own. They can transfer to a good neighborhood school out of zone. OR they can work with their neighborhood schools to make them a top choice – like parents in Roland Park, Federal Hill, Charles Village, Midtown, and Hampden. The question isn’t whether we should return to mandatory zoned schools. We can’t. It’s whether we want neighborhood public schools at all, and why?


      • Sometimes I really wonder about my ability to communicate. Did my long paragraph about failure of working with my zoned school make any sense? I guess not because your response is “they can work with their neighborhood schools to make them a top choice” Really? They can? Maybe, looking at your list of schools, you can if your neighborhood is wealthier than mine (or Baltimore as a whole).

        Oh, and whoever told you that the in-zone parents at Roland Park and Federal Hill made those schools excellent was lying. It was the parents who brought their kids across town to go to those schools, with their magnet programs and their under-enrolled class sizes that brought those schools up. Then the in-zone parents were all excited about jumping on-board. Followed soon thereafter with a desire to get rid of all those “out-of-zone” kids. And Roland Park Middle is a magnet program, so it really doesn’t speak to the zoned school question. And Midtown is one of those charter schools, which you just said “aren’t going anywhere”. I know nothing about Hampden and Charles Village, but how many of the school age kids in those neighborhoods go to their zoned public school?

        About that “aren’t going anywhere” comment, is that based on any firsthand experience? I can speak for two charters where I’ve seen much happier teachers than I’ve seen in zoned and even some magnet schools. And to me, being happy is the first step in being an excellent teacher, which is really what an excellent school is made of. Excellent administrators and involved parents support teachers, but really, teachers make the school.

        And “leaving parents no choice but to go shopping and hope for a seat in their top choice charter”? How about giving parents with failing zoned schools lots of options of where they might go. They can enter many lotteries for over-enrolled charter schools, but even if they don’t win a seat they can select a school within their quadrant and almost certainly find a room (for middle schools) or investigate all the magnet and lottery (non-charter) options available for high school students. Even elementary schools have flexibility to serve students in failing schools or students who have needs that can’t be met at their neighborhood school. You make options sound bad – seems like you’ve never been stuck in a dead-end situation where a change, even if it’s not perfect, feels like salvation.

        BTW – I’m not buying any books by people who constantly annoy me when I read what they write on the web


        • A parent – It’s terrible that you had such a bad experience with your zoned school and great that you were able to get out. Now that “choice” is the name of the game, neighborhood schools have to do work they never had to before – promoting themselves, attracting families who could go elsewhere, etc. When I referred to Midtown I wasn’t referring to Midtown Academy, which did not start out as a charter school but as a new initiative, before charter schools came to Baltimore. I was referring to a group of parents – Midtown Parents – currently organizing around the zoned public school in Bolton Hill, Mount Royal Academy. Federal Hill Prep is not a magnet school. It’s a regular neighborhood public school, with a confusing name. Also, I’ll loan you my copy of DR’s book. I finished it last night!



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