The Real Baltimore: Failing Schools or Failed Policies?
Baltimore educators Diamonte Brown and Job Trotsky join former Chicago principal Troy LaRaviere say schools should not be blamed for failures of society
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real Baltimore. I’m your host Jaisal Noor. The future of public education has never been more fraught. A hostile administration, pushing to privatize schools, has prompted a fierce debate over the future of how and what to teach our children. On the forefront of this conflict are the students, parents, and educators who continue to demand quality public education across the country. Today we’ll focus on the challenges facing two of the largest and, some say, most troubled districts, Baltimore and Chicago. Both have majority populations of communities of color, and both have faced a series of fights over budget cuts, school closings, and layoffs over the past several years.
Well, we’re now joined by three guests who knows these communities intimately. Job Grotzky is in his fourth year as principal of Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School. His goals include community partners helping the students get the opportunities they deserve, both in and out of the classroom.
Diamonte Brown is a Baltimore native, community activist, and a teacher at Renaissance Academy High, which is just a few blocks away from Mount Royal Academy. She was directly impacted by the war on drugs. She’s an advocate for the reform of policies that negatively impact black communities.
And, visiting us from Chicago, is Troy LaRaviere. He’s the President of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. He was removed and subsequently resigned from his position as principal after speaking out against Rahm Emanuel and his handling of the Chicago Public School System. He’s now exploring a run for mayor himself.
Thank you all for joining us.
Guests: Thanks for having us.
Jaisal Noor: So, Chicago and Baltimore have a lot in common. Not only are they cities with Democratic mayors, but they are in states with Republican governors. They continue to bear the burden of historic policies and trends like segregation, white flight, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, for which youth today continue to pay a very high price.
Let’s start with you, Troy. You were a principal for a long time in Chicago. Talk about the challenges in being an educator, providing quality education for communities that are facing so many challenges.
Troy LaRaviere: Well, the challenge is the attack. The challenge is a two-pronged attack. There’s an attack on the schools themselves and on educators, and there’s an attack on the children that attend them. You know, I’ve been a principal in the poorest communities and I’ve been a principal in some of the wealthiest. I have taught children who were homeless and I’ve taught children whose parents own multiple homes. When I was a principal in a low-income community, for example, Johnson School, the kids at Johnson on day one of kindergarten would come to school years behind the kids at Blaine on the North Side, in Lakeview, in a wealthy community, where I was also a principal. Day one of kindergarten and they’re years behind.
How’s that a failing school? It’s the first day of school. They’ve never been in a school and they’re years behind. They’re behind because they’ve been failed long before they ever reach the school. They’ve been failed by their city councilmen or aldermen as we call them in Chicago. They’ve been failed by their state rep. They’ve been failed by their mayor. They’ve been failed by their Congressman, their Senator. They’ve been failed by their State Representative. They’ve been failed by the business community that didn’t create the jobs for their parents to have access to adequate income to provide them with access to things that would stimulate their cognitive development. They’re failed by the fact that, if you live in Lincoln Park, a wealthy community in Chicago, you have a zero percent chance of being exposed to lead paint, but if you live in Austin, a black community, you have a one in four chance of being exposed to lead paint and then having those cognitive difficulties that come with that exposure.
And so, if you’re in Austin, you show up to school, getting back to your question, you show up to the school, you know … The schools in Austin have an entirely different population of kids to deal with, they have a population that’s been neglected, that didn’t get adequate nutrition, that’s been exposed to lead paint, because they have been failed by their municipal government, by their county government, by their state government, and all the people that I’ve just listed. So there’s an attack on these children long before they’ve ever reached the school system, and so that’s a big part of that challenge, because you are then required to make up for a gap that you didn’t create, right? And it’s an impossible task because, when the kids get there, you can teach them, and they’re going to learn, but remember this is all about an achievement gap, right?
And so, if a kid in a poor community’s here and a kid from a wealthier community is here, in Chicago, poor kids learn in school, but the gap’s never going to close because the wealthy kids keep learning, too, right? You’re not going to close the gap until you deal with that gap where it starts. That gap starts from birth to five, where that gap is created. Am I making sense here? So, that attack on those kids is one of our biggest challenges and the neglect of their communities is one of our biggest challenges because we then have to deal with the failure that is delivered, the failure to treat them adequately that’s delivered to the schoolhouse door on day one of kindergarten and then we take all the blame.
You know, it’s my belief that, when a kid reaches your school on day one of kindergarten, they should be given a test. And when they take that test, somebody should be given a grade, but it’s not the school. Their alderman should be given a grade. Their city councilman should be given a grade. Their state rep should be given a grade based on whether or not they did what was necessary to ensure those kids come to school ready to learn.
Jaisal Noor: Now since No Child Left Behind and before that, there’s been this tremendous push for accountability for schools and educators and principals, but that question is never asked. How do we evaluate the people in power, the people that are controlling these policies? Diamonte, we just heard a perspective from Chicago. Do you see parallels with Baltimore?
Diamonte Brown: Oh, yeah, I see a lot of parallels. I concur with everything Troy said and to add to that I would say that we face a challenge of stigma. For example, I remember in my Master’s classes, when I was getting my Master’s degree in Secondary Education, even the wording that’s used to train teachers, like, “Well, what would you do if you were teaching in a low-income community with minority students?” When really it’s asking you have you ever taught a whole bunch of black kids? But that’s not what being said but it’s what’s being said without what’s being said. And so, a lot of people, especially people that aren’t from Baltimore and black people that aren’t from Baltimore, come into the classroom, come into our schools with this mindset that these kids are different than other kids and I have to have a different approach and I have to do … There’s some secret, magic wand that I need to get these kids to perform, you know?
Whereas when people walk into Towson High School or any other school, they go in with hope and inspiration and, you know, you want to produce that play as an English teacher. But, when you’re being taught before you even walk in the classroom that these kids can’t do it, then you instantly lower your expectations and that transfers onto our kids. They know they’re being stigmatized and they feel like, “Well, if you guys are going to set low expectations for us, if you don’t expect us to perform much, why should we?” So it’s just a stigma all around. There’s a stigma on black leadership. I’ve heard people talk about young, black principals in Baltimore City Public Schools and these stigmas just continue to build and snowball without being addressed because we use all these codewords for black children. It’s difficult to have the conversation when people don’t want to be honest and realistic about the population of children that we’re talking about.
Jaisal Noor: Job, I want to get you in on the conversation. So not only are schools in Baltimore dealing with everything we’ve talked about, but they’re also faced with massive budget cuts this year. Your school, I believe, lost more than $300,000 this year. What impact does that have when you’re already working with students that are coming from, you know, difficult backgrounds, from neighborhoods with not a lot of resources?
Job Grotsky: One of the things we try to do is we added pre-K to our school because we realized that students, just like Troy said, students that come into school unprepared. One way to try and tackle that was adding a pre-K, and we can see the difference. We’ve had it, this is going on our third year. We definitely see an improvement in the scores, readiness for kindergarten. In terms of budget impacts, you know, I was speaking to Troy earlier about principals and the autonomy we have in Baltimore City, you know, we have a smaller pot of money. We have to still provide the quality education and everything. I think one way is you have to become more creative, tapping into the resources of your neighborhood communities, tapping into the business community. My PTO banded together after they caught wind of how much we could potentially lose, and it made them stronger and said, “What can we do about it?”
I agree with Troy, there’s a lot of policy failures at the top, but, you know, being on the ground, what can I do immediately? Yes, changing policy will take a long time but what can I do tomorrow? You know, September, the day, the fourth I think it is, we open for school. What can I do right now to make sure that my students get the quality education that they need immediately? It’s harder with budget cuts but, like I said, my philosophy has always been that we can do things as educators. We can do things as principals and leaders within the building. The students are coming regardless.
You look at some schools that are in poorer neighborhoods that are excelling. What are the qualities that are internal that make that happen? I think it’s leadership, it’s staff, it’s teachers. We have great teachers in Baltimore City. We have dedicated teachers. We keep stripping our resources but, like Diamonte said, they go into their pockets to make sure that the students have what they need, which is kind of a theme in Baltimore City. We’re going to keep doing what we do and the policymakers, I think, it’s going to be a longer turnaround for them, but, for us, I think, in the building, just keeping focused on student achievement.
Jaisal Noor: So what you started off the conversation by talking about, it’s not really discussed in the news or in the media, it’s not a topic of conversation, holding policymakers accountable for the failures of our society. The result of that is this stigma of failing schools, of failing public education, and the accountability push, it’s been supported by both Democrats and Republicans, and now we have Betsy DeVos, who’s a billionaire heiress, and her goal, her agenda, essentially has been to privatize public education. What that means essentially is take control out of the public sphere and put it in private hands. Do you think that’s a good answer for our problems?
Troy LaRaviere: No, and I’ll give you the two strands of thought that inform my opinion on that. One is the one we started with in terms of this idea of who is accountable for these so-called failures, and, you know, you can’t … There’s an argument that’s put forth to justify this privatization, and so that argument is false for several reasons. Number one, when kids arrive and they’re not ready to learn … In Chicago, for example, our schools are depicted as failing and they’re depicted as failing because of the failure of an entirely different group of people outside of schools like I just talked about, right?
There’s a way to see through that. There was a study done in 2007 and just replicated just past this month, the results were just released. What it showed is that Chicago Public Schools are better than any school system in the state when you look at what they do with what they get. Meaning that, there is no better school system for a poor student to go to than Chicago Public Schools. They grow academically more in Chicago Public Schools than they grow in any other school system in the state of Illinois. There is no better school system for a working-class child to go to or a middle-income child to go in the entire state of Illinois than Chicago Public Schools because they perform better than children at any other district in Illinois. There is no better school system for a child from a wealthy family to go to than Chicago Public Schools because they perform better. Chicago Public School students who come from wealthy households perform better than students who come from wealthy households in any other district in the state of Illinois.
The issue is that Chicago Public Schools has a much higher percentage of low-income students. They make up the mass of the students. So if you just look at overall student performance, it looks like Chicago’s not doing well, but when you pay attention to what we do with what we get, then you can see we’re outperforming everyone. That’s in large part due to our teachers and our principals, the staff, the people who provide that day-to-day. I think we have the best teachers, the best principals, the best staffing of any district in the state in terms of the skill of the people doing the job. And so right there you have eliminated the basis, the false argument, that’s supposed to be a justification for the charters.
The other side of that is look at the performance of the charters themselves, right? Let’s look at the achievement gap, for example. If you look at Milwaukee, charters and vouchers and privatization has been in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin longer than any other place in America. How have they done? Now let’s look at that in terms of the achievement gap, right? Because the achievement gap says that black and brown students are on the bottom, white and Asian students are on the top, so we need to get these black and brown students in places where they can grow. We need these charters for them, right? And so that’s what’s happened in Milwaukee. Black and brown students are in large part the ones who go to the charters.
So if the charters were performing better, what’s supposed to happen to that gap? It would shrink a bit, right? If they’re worse, the gap would grow. If they’re about the same, the gap should stay the same. What happened in Wisconsin over the 20 or 30 years? Wisconsin now has the largest achievement gap in the United States, the largest. So something’s happening there with those charters in terms of the students who are going to them are not growing academically. Look right here in Washington, D.C., your next-door neighbor. If Washington, D.C. was a state, it would beat Wisconsin for the largest achievement gap in the nation and over half your schools are charters. They’re not delivering on the promise.
In Chicago, we have an assessment called the MAP. It measures overall performance but it also measures how much students grow academically. In 2013-2014, we looked at how charter schools perform overall and how much charter school students grow versus how much Chicago public students perform overall and how much they grow. If you looked at overall performance, they looked equal. Students in the charters were about at the 50th percentile. CPS’ average was about the 50th percentile. But when you looked at how much those students grew academically, the charters were in about the 48th percentile. Chicago Public School neighborhood students were in the 75th percentile.
And so, there is better teaching and learning happening in public schools, but public schools more and more, students who are low-income and less likely to achieve are being concentrated into those public schools while the charters are getting kids who may be low-income but are not at the bottom end of low-income. So you can make $40,000 and still be low-income or you can have a household income of $5,000 and be low-income. So charter schools will have low income at the $40,000 range and public schools are more and more likely to have low-income at the $5,000 range and are therefore dealing with more challenges and still outperforming them in terms of the amount of student growth that they get.
Jaisal Noor: To the issue of segregation, the hyper-segregation of low-income students, of students from challenging backgrounds, something that you deal with in your school, Diamonte, what impacts does that have on learning and education and how much time you have to be an educator in the classroom?
Diamonte Brown: Well, the first thing is that it limits my students’ exposure to a world that’s greater than themselves, you know? They really think their world is their neighborhood or their zone that they live in and their classmates, because they don’t see people that, like Troy was saying, a lot of times in Baltimore we don’t have some kids, some families that are making $5,000 and some families that are making 40 in the same building, you know?
First of all, a lot of kids, now that Baltimore City Schools are choice schools, that’s where my students have been trying to educate me that because we generalize and we assume that they’re from low-income households and they’re from deprived communities, we create our curriculum, we create our whole strategic plan based on that. But that’s not what we’re seeing face-to-face. My students are from like Columbia, Owings Mills, Troy, these are counties that are a little bit more lucrative than Baltimore City. They’re from places, they’re from different socio-economic backgrounds. They have parents that are nurses and all of these things but, once again, because of the media and the way they’re portrayed and the way we group them together, they’re in awe. They’re completely confused because they’re like, “But, I used to go to Howard County Public School and I used to have this and this and that and people treated me this way. I look the same and I come from the same exact family and neighborhood but now, because I transferred to Baltimore City Public Schools, why am I valued less there when nothing has changed about me?”
Like I said, for me it goes back to what our outlook is on our kids and it’s not just people that aren’t people of color. A lot of black teachers and black principals and black educators come from this lens of deficiency and our kids have all these deficits and challenges and all of these things and, yes, that’s true but that doesn’t make your brain gone, you know? I came from a similar background as my students. I still live in, I live right down the street from some of my students, but that didn’t fry my brain. It did traumatize me but I still had the ability to learn like any other student. And what that hyper-segregation does is it creates this false idea that our students can’t learn and don’t deserve to learn like any other child.
Jaisal Noor: Job, how do you deal with these challenges and what can we do to help overcome them?
Job Grotsky: We have advanced academics, Ingenuity, and general ed at my school in middle school level, so it’s always challenging because you’re almost running three separate programs. One thing I find with my staff is we need to ensure that there is an equity across the board. When I first got to my school, there were tones of, “Well, that homeroom can’t have Spanish. They can’t handle it, so we’ll put them in Physical Education the whole year.” That group gets to go on the field trips because they’re the advanced group. So we’ve been working really hard to equalize the playing field and maintain equity for all our students.
One of the best days I had was when my boss came and we were touring some classrooms, and he was taking notes about one of my classes. We walked out and he was like, “What advanced homeroom was that?” I said, “That was one of the general ed classes,” just to make sure that our students don’t feel like they’re being treated differently within the school. That’s just a basic right, you know? It’s an uphill battle when you’re dealing with adults who have implicit biases, coming from different backgrounds themselves. You know, I think that’s something we have to tackle system-wide.
We’re at such a deficit for teachers, we have constant turnover for teachers. Once we stabilize that and we attract teachers, then it’s training them the proper way. I think our teachers are trained very well in Baltimore City, but then we lose them to the counties. We do all the work, we do all the hard work, train them, all the counties, they go, “Oh, you taught in Baltimore City Schools?” But then there’s also the reverse stigma of, “Oh, you survived city schools.” I hate that. “You survived city schools? We’ll eat you up.” So we’ve got to figure out how to keep our teachers within Baltimore City Schools. We train them very well and they’re great teachers.
In terms of the super-segregation, you know Baltimore City geographically is just so set up. We have pockets of neighborhoods. Within four blocks you have a $600,000 house and then you have five out of eight homes are vacant. I don’t have an answer to that but it’s a larger problem, I think, Troy is kind of getting at than just school systems.
Jaisal Noor: Troy, that issue of segregation, there’s a new book by Richard Rothstein that says, his conclusion is segregation is the leading factor that hurts public education, more than budget cuts, more than education reform, the concentration of low-income students makes it harder for teachers to have time to address the needs of those students versus, and you talked about the ability to learn and to grow, but that’s something that the American public is still a long way from addressing and knowing and even understanding. But let’s talk about some policies. What kind of things would you like to see changed in Chicago and around the country that could help bridge some of these gaps and change the conversations we’re having around public education?
Troy LaRaviere: Yeah, segregation is the basis of the neglect I spoke of earlier. You can’t neglect an entire race, for lack of a better way to put it, of people, or a huge segment of a particular race, unless you have segregated them and put them in a place that you can then neglect based on place, right? You can’t neglect, if communities were integrated, for example, you could not, it would not be easy to target your neglect. It would not be easy to pick, okay, this is the community that won’t get lead paint abatement. This is the community that won’t have access to, that’ll be a food desert. This is the community that won’t have access to adequate healthcare and nutrition, right? You couldn’t do that.
So when those kids show up to school, as I mentioned before, on day one behind, it is a result of a neglect that was made possible by segregation. Am I making sense here?
Job Grotsky: Yes.
Diamonte Brown: Yes, a lot.
Troy LaRaviere: And so, you know, if you want to address it, it has to be intentional. If you look on WBEZ, that’s our public radio affiliate in Chicago, there’s a reporter, Natalie Moore, who did this wonderful story on the neighborhood I currently live in. I’ve lived all over Chicago, but I live in one of the only integrated neighborhoods in the city, Beverly. They integrated that neighborhood, it wasn’t an accident. They were extremely intentional about how they integrated that neighborhood, fighting the folks, the real estate agents, who were trying to block-bust, deciding that, for example, if one house was sold on this particular block to a black family, then the next house that was sold had to be on another block so that the fright and the flight syndrome would not kick. They were extremely-
Jaisal Noor: That is the opposite of cities like Baltimore. Baltimore had the first racial zoning ordinance, where a white family couldn’t move into majority-black neighborhoods.
Troy LaRaviere: Well, Chicago was like that, too, but Beverly, this community that I’m from, was one of the only ones if not the only one that organized itself to intentionally beat those odds, if I’m making any sense. So any effort to integrate has to be intentional and it has to be the focus of any effort to help the school systems so that they don’t have to deal with this neglect. Because again, the neglect is made possible by the segregation itself.
Jaisal Noor: Diamonte, let’s end with you. An impact of segregation is the, we know, poverty and we know that crime and violence also play a huge toll. I know I was at your school before the school year was over and I asked your students to raise their hands, the 12 students that spoke with us, to raise their hand if they knew someone who had experienced violence or been a victim of violence or themselves had experienced violence-
Diamonte Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jaisal Noor: … almost every single one of them had raised their hand.
Diamonte Brown: Yeah, that was pretty heartbreaking.
Jaisal Noor: And talk about that. I mean, you know, Chicago also has similar issues with Baltimore, but talk about the challenges of learning when you come, as your students said, “You’re not, you know, you kiss your mom every morning before you leave to school because you’re not sure if you’re going to come back that day.”
Diamonte Brown: Yeah, that’s a pretty daunting perspective to have when you come to school every day. Like one of the students also said that they smile so much because of they have so many issues, that’s so they won’t break down and cry. They’re just smiling and they’re just the class clown. And so, it’s traumatizing and I think it has a, first of all it has an impact on our attendance, which we don’t talk a lot about. We blame our attendance issues on poor parenting and distance from schools but we forget that nobody wants to walk down the street, even if you live around the corner, past all the junkies and the needles, the boys ask you if they can holler, you know, the trash, all that. The person on the corner try and get you to sell a pack for them, a pack is drugs just in case everybody don’t understand, but you have to get through all that before you can educate yourself and that’s traumatizing in itself and we don’t have any plan for environmental health for our students.
You know, I was going to pass the school the other day and we probably can say this for most Baltimore City Public Schools, from the outside our schools look like jails. You can’t even see through the windows. Like, literally, our kids can’t see through a window from in the school building. And so just walking in is a depression. The way it looks is depressing, so, yes, the violence and the fact that the kids think that it’s the way it is, it’s difficult for them to see what’s beyond what they see every day. If you can’t see what’s beyond violence and plight and despair, it’s difficult for you to come in the classroom motivated to get what you need to get to go beyond.
Jaisal Noor: Okay, I want to thank you all for joining us, this discussion of The Real Baltimore.