If You Give a Kid a Cupcake, or Is Baltimore the New Brooklyn?

Yes, moms and dads, I was thinking of this book when I wrote this post!

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.


9 Comments to “If You Give a Kid a Cupcake, or Is Baltimore the New Brooklyn?”

  1. I am excited to have found your blog, but I am very curious about your tone when it comes to charter schools. Are you advising across the board to improve what exists over reinventing the wheel? Each school, community, district, etc. is so different. Sometimes they need overhaul, and the limitations on public schools don’t necessarily allow for rapid change.

    I applaud your efforts to improve your school, but the commentary really must be localized to your situation. I have been trying to familiarize myself with the public schools in my area. The failing schools: Northwestern, Fallstaff, etc. in Baltimore City. There aren’t middle class families sending their kids there in significant numbers. I would support any and all measures to help these schools get on better footing to help these students succeed and turn these schools into success stories we could be proud of. But, today, if I had a child in one of those schools, where I see police cars everyday, I would get my kid in a lottery for a charter school as fast as I could.

    So, I would be careful not to discourage support for charter schools, private schools and their place as broader educational options for our kids. I support the Maryland Ed. Tax Credit specifically for these low-incomes kids that the state seems to be happy to not support because they’re not in their public school system. What is that called? reverse elitism?


    • T,

      This blog is hyperlocal when it comes to the charter versus neighborhood elementary school debate. In my neighborhood, the public elementary school is one of the best in Baltimore, by test scores. (It was one of 15 schools in Baltimore City to make Adequate Yearly Progress last year.) For many years, though, “middle class” parents relatively new to the neighborhood have not considered it to be an option. That’s the issue that led me to start writing this blog in April 2011. (Read my first post.)

      I comment on situations in other parts of the country when I think they’re analogous, because paying attention to what’s happening in neighborhoods similar to mine can be instructive. Given the nationwide mandates coming down from the U.S. Department of Education, urban school districts across the country have grown more and more alike. I understand that within Baltimore City there are many, many shattered neighborhoods with “failing schools” where the obstacles to improvement seem insurmountable. If I thought charter schools were the answer for the tens of thousands of children zoned for those schools, this would be a very different blog. I leave it to others to tout the benefits of charter schools or to start those schools (just not in my neighborhood, which has a good number of fine schools already).

      My mission as a citizen-parent is to help make my neighborhood public school a top choice for all zoned families. My intention as an advocate is to highlight a choice many people take for granted – the school right down the street. My intention as a blogger is to tell the story of that effort and grapple openly with the issues that such a mission raises – including questions of fairness, equity, and inclusion.

      To your final point, if you are interested in supporting low-income students who want to attend private schools, you might look into the Children’s Scholarship Fund in Baltimore: http://www.csfbaltimore.org/ In my opinion, private money should pay for private school, and public money for public school. But that is a topic for another day, and this blog may not be the right place.


      • Excellent. Thank you for your reply. I love reading about advocacy and folks actually getting involved and doing something for their schools – ANY kind of school. If you guys are looking for money for your school, my pet insanity is bringing in corporate dollars to schools through corporate citizenship programs like the ones available through Target, Giant, Office Depot, etc. and making those programs more accessible to parents, ptas, etc.

        As for public dollars for public schools vs. private – The specific legislation up for discussion is the MD Education Tax Credit – and it’ll come around for a vote again in the House next year, at which point, I hope you do comment- 60/40 to benefit private/public school students – low income. It’s a state incentive to businesses to invest in education – both types, but the beauty fiscally to the tax payer, parent, and student: For every $60 of state money, the schools receive $100. The cap is a total of $15 million from the state.

        The inequity of funding and the lack of attention to offer educational options for low-income kids who aren’t served by or don’t fit into the public school district they live in never ceases to appall me.


  2. Why do middle class parents get such a bum wrap? I believe you get out of a group, what you put in. I’ve been a volunteer in city schools for years. I actually really enjoy teaching Singapore Math to 3rd-5th graders. I don’t advertise to any particular demographic; I choose to leave that up to the PTO. I welcome the help of all. That being said, I find that middle class parents tend to show up in greater numbers and participate more fully. Perhaps its the self actualizing perception of other parents which makes them shy away from progressive events and not the actions of the organizers. Wouldn’t it be great if we all could leave our labels at the door and show up in good faith; choosing to do better for our children?


    • Unfortunately so many of the non-middle class parents work in jobs where they’re lucky if they can get a single day off (the NYT article that Edit discussed alludes to this). I can think of many of the more common jobs in Baltimore – healthcare jobs in nursing homes and hospitals jump to the top of the list – where you have thousands of low-wage workers on 8-12 hour shifts, who lack paid sick leave, let alone personal leave or vacation days. There are a lot of mothers in this city who are lucky if they can even see their children for two hours a day, let alone volunteer for them at school. Like so many of the issues in our schools, this one is so deeply connected to the kind of economy America has created.


      • As a health care consultant and executive I can tell you most workers in the field choose to be independent consultants to avoid having taxes withheld (which I don’t support) and in doing so, opt out of having paid sick leave or days off. I don’t subscribe to the theory that economy determines the wealth of time we spend with our children. As a parent who has been on all levels of the economic spectrum at one time or another, I know that children can be the priority and not the “two hour” sacrifice. America didn’t create this economy, we all did. The more we refuse to accept accountability for the condition of our world, the more we expose our children to propensity for false entitlement personality disorders. We all, regardless of wealth, determine our worth and the worth of our children’s education. “Choices are like lungs; everybody has them.”


  3. we want you at Hampdenfest again this year. Contact Charlotte at hampdenfest@gmail.com
    Thank you for having faith in existing institutions over reinventing the wheel. You are awesome!


  4. Thoughtful post! Perhaps you can keep the friction that is happening in Brooklyn from happening in Baltimore by keeping the PTO open to all types of parents and families, not just the more privileged middle class. That is the problem in Brooklyn and much of New York (where I lived for my whole life until I moved to Baltimore to be with my husband). The middle class works to get things done for their families and their type (which is great), but they do not always think of the people who have less than they do. As a result, the families who have traditionally inhabited neighborhoods end up getting the short end of the stick and grow resentful (with good reason). Hopefully your group can be reflective of its actions and not forget that there is a broad and beautiful diversity of people who live in Baltimore. They want what is best for their children and families, just you and your fellow members of WHAM, even if they cannot afford the same comforts or have as much of a voice as those of more privilege.

    I have a lot of respect for your blog, and as a public school educator I read it a lot. I hope your group can do all it hopes to achieve!


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