Baltimore Communities Wage Legislative and Grassroots Battles For Better Public Schools

December 9, 2014

Baltimore residents have secured $1 billion over ten years to restore and revitalize their historically underfunded school district, while communities are undertaking grassroots efforts to ensure access to quality education for all students

Baltimore residents have secured $1 billion over ten years to restore and revitalize their historically underfunded school district, while communities are undertaking grassroots efforts to ensure access to quality education for all students



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Story Transcript

MEGAN SHERMAN, TRNN PRODUCER: Even though nationally Maryland has top-ranked public schools, the City of Baltimore’s predominantly low-income African-American school district struggles to provide students with a quality education to address historic inequities.

Activists successfully fought for increased funding for Baltimore schools through a ten-year plan. But other residents and activists aren’t waiting around for the additional funding. They’re launching grassroots campaigns to completely provide young people with critical resources such as libraries.

On Tuesday, November 11, over 100 parents, teachers, students, and education advocates attended a Baltimore school board hearing on what schools will be closed as a part of the funding and revitalization plan called the 21st Century School Initiative. Among those attending was Jamal Jones of the Baltimore algebra project, which is a youth-led education advocacy group. He discussed the challenges members of the Lake Clifton community are facing as they try to ensure that their school receives funding.

JAMAL JONES, COEXEC. DIR., BALTIMORE ALGEBRA PROJECT: These goals allocated a roundabout figure of $50 million to reconstruct their schools after a year, almost, a year or so of lack of communication and lack of transparency between the school system and the community members who have been previously engaged in the Lake Clifton community, that they were going to defer Lake Clifton, which essentially meant that Lake Clifton wouldn’t be done, because the reconstruction for Lake Clifton was estimated to be about 90 million, and they wanted to spend about 50 million.

So today we were coming out to, one, propose–well, to kind of show our grievances against the idea that we would close, that they would close. Like, and the other idea is that the lake would be deferred.

SHERMAN: Other community members suggested alternative proposals, such as keeping some schools open for longer. School board officials stated that they would be announcing the fate of schools like Lake Clifton and Patterson on another date.

The 21st Century Schools Initiative is in its infancy. Feasibility studies used to gauge the utilization rate of each school have been underway since the fall of 2013 and were delayed due to some miscalculations of the cost to renovate each building.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, the executive director of the New Initiatives Department of Baltimore City Public Schools, talks about the reasons behind the delayed studies and the purpose of closing certain schools.

ALISON PERKINS-COHEN, EXEC. DIR., NEW INITIATIVES DEPT., BCPS: We want to make sure that each individual feasibility study was as efficient as possible, so providing the best in the education possible in the most efficient way possible, so that we could spread the resources to as many schools as possible. And that process took us a little longer than anticipated. And now we’re kind of back on track with those and bringing feasibility studies to the board for approval, and we’ll be meeting with communities again in terms of the next phase of design.

If you’re trying to maintain all these buildings, many of which are underutilized, that’s very expensive. So if we can have students in a smaller number of buildings, where they’re actually utilizing it at a higher percentage, and have enough students in those programs to support better programming, then it also cuts down on our maintenance cost and allows us to focus those resources on the schools where students are and to provide better facilities to all students.

SHERMAN: Many who were present during the meeting are longtime advocates for education reform, as well as members of the Baltimore education coalition, which was founded in 2011 and key in fighting for the billion-dollar investment towards city school construction.

Frank Patinella is an education advocate at the ACLU and played a major role in drafting a document that was central to that fight. The Buildings for Academic Excellence Report was released in June 2010. The report documented the deficiencies present in city school infrastructure and highlighted other districts with exceptional facilities that could serve as models for Baltimore. He describes why the coalition focused on improving school buildings and the social implications of having students in subpar learning environments.

FRANK PATINELLA, EDUCATION ADVOCATE, ACLU-MD: School environments are really important to kids. It really says something about the value that we have as a society in the education of kids and what value we place in education and their future. And I think it’s really hard to measure, but there’s no doubt that students internalize these things, right, if they’re going to school for 18 years, elementary school through high school, in a building that looks like a prison, that has windows you can’t see out of, that can’t open, that have boilers that are so old that they don’t work, or maybe it’s too hot in one classroom and on the other side of the building it’s too cold and they have to wear their winter coats to take their tests, there’s no air conditioning, and during the warm months they are sweating and they can’t concentrate while taking their test. I was just at a school the other day where rain is literally coming into the library, where learning takes place. So I think all of these things have an impact on the student morale and, overall, their outlook on their future.

SHERMAN: Renovations for over 25 city schools are six or seven years away, which is why teachers and students have launched campaigns to improve the state of their buildings and supplement resources for the young people who are currently in attendance. Among those is a West Baltimore high school called ConneXions, where there are few resources left to purchase books after the library on campus was renovated. Members of the American Friends Service Committee, who already work with a number of students from the neighboring Gilmor Homes community, organized a book drive and collected 3,000 books for the space. They held an opening ceremony where Emory Douglas, artist and activist for the Black Panther Party, presented his work and spoke about the importance of community organizing and the benefits of black people taking ownership of their communities. He described ways that the Black Panther Party worked within their neighborhoods to create programs to provide resources to the people.

Kia Harper, principal of ConneXions, describes the critical role that school environment can have, both negatively and positively, on the culture of school and the importance of schools having community partners.

KIA HARPER, PRINCIPAL, CONNEXIONS SCHOOL FOR THE ARTS: We all know, or we should, the idea of a school-to-prison pipeline. And when you walk through some of the buildings of Baltimore City, they certainly remind you of an institutionalized space. So to continue to have and upgrade the spaces where our students are just gives a sense of positivity and pride.

To have pride in where you are, to be able to respect and be proud of where you are, is a start to changing the climate and culture of any school. When students see dirty, when they see rundown, you get this internal sense, this subconscious sense that no one cares about you. When they can very well see the difference between a suburban school versus an urban school and that it takes this long to get certain things that just come with the package of being in a certain socioeconomic neighborhood and the school that’s there, then they internalize that.

I think the other thing that’s important for students is the idea that the community really does care, with them watching the organization coming, with people who don’t know them at all, who we’ve only been affiliated with for months, not years, come in and say, I care that much about you that you have these things.

SHERMAN: Britney, who is a student at ConneXions, talks about the impact she thinks the newly filled library will have on the student body and what it means to her.

BRITTANY PRICE, STUDENT, CONNEXIONS SCHOOL FOR THE ARTS: It’s going to help us reach our goal for SAT scores and college educations and English classes, it’s going to help a lot of stuff, because reading is actually fundamental, and it helps you, it actually impacts your life a lot. And I know that because without having a library here, my vocabulary level is not that great. Being here since middle school and not having an opportunity to come upstairs and just check out a book or doing stuff like that has really been the worst part of high school.

It’s a good feeling to just know that there are people who actually want to help African-American students and help [rural (?)] schools who don’t really have as much as county schools and stuff like that.

SHERMAN: A long history of neglect his left Baltimore City schools in a deplorable state.

Despite the challenges, community members are working together to fight for quality public education. Whether it be the advocates who are demanding institutions address historic inequities or residents who are collectively organizing to provide direct services to specific schools, there are people constantly striving to improve the opportunities available to young people in Baltimore.

This is Megan Sherman reporting with The Real News Network.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.