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Ribbon cuttings for five new Baltimore City schools raise hope for community members about access to quality education, while calling into question political will to make progress for all students

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DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: I’m Khalilah Harris for The Real News Network at Cherry Hill Elementary Middle School at the opening of this new 21st century school building.

DR. SONJA SANTELISES: I am Sonja Santelises. I’m CEO of City Schools. I, along with Claude, want to welcome you all here today, members of the Ann Arundel community, members of the Cherry Hill community, elected officials. There are so many people here who just have played such an amazing role in what we see here now.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Back to school season in Baltimore. The billion-dollar 21st Century Schools Fund is supporting the opening of five new city schools in this school year, and the renovation or rebuilding of 23 others. This effort came in response to years of protests, advocacy, and collaboration between the grassroots and city and elected officials with the Transform Baltimore campaign.

BEBE VERDERY: This school and the other ones being opened this week are really the culmination of so many people’s work and dreams over the last eight or so years. We started a campaign to try to replace all the decrepit, unacceptable school buildings in Baltimore City. And now we’re seeing the fruits of everyone’s labor.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: The old Arundel Elementary Middle School will find new life as the Baltimore Early Learning Academy, and will provide an early childhood center spanning birth through second grade. Just steps away, the renovated Cherry Hill Elementary Middle School will serve grades three through eight. This innovation in grade structures was demanded by community members, and cannot be found anywhere else in the city.

DR. SONJA SANTELISES: One of the things that the mayor and I were talking about before the ceremony was we have kindergarteners that will be going to Ann Arundel who will graduate from Cherry Hill with this was the norm. They are not going to know that there was another, right, that was less than. They are going to walk through their learning experience knowing that this is what it should look like.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Many residents of all ages attended the events, expressing their reflection on what once was and what is now possible for the new building.

DEMONTE WRIGHT: It’s really good for all the kids, because I used to go to school here, and I’ve seen how we didn’t really have enough space for our wrestling programs and our gym. It was all in one area, the gymnasium and everything was together. But now there’s more space, more kids to come. You know, people, we got better staff, so everybody can help out now. It’s better than it was a few years back when I was there.

I think it’s really good for them because a lot of kids these days, they’re not really into school. But when you do stuff like this for the kids to help them out, and they want to learn. Or they’re seeing better things in the area, and they’re going to want to work harder.

LELIA BROWN HUBBARD: It’s important to me because I started here from McKenny Garden, and I finished the sixth grade here. And it’s a part of history for me.

GWENDOLYN LINDSAY: It’s important for me because the children now that are going to be our future. And we want to make sure that they get a quality education. Not only a quality education, but a building that is safe and state of the arts.

SANDRA JOHNSON: And I also went to school here. It was a wonderful school when I was here. But that was a long time ago. So it needs some refreshing to keep up. New learning and new experiences.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: The parents in attendance were also very clear about what this opportunity could mean for their students and their community.

MICHAEL REEVES: I’m looking for an opportunity for kids to learn. They’ll have a good school here [inaudible] for life. Because it’s hard out here for black kids in the city. So this will be good for them. Elementary school [inaudible].

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: While expressing their excitement, there was a consistent acknowledgment that all students, families, and educators in this community and across the city deserve spaces that show an investment in them.

TRACEY GARRETT: I think the energy is really that it is possible to deliver on our promise to our young people, right. This building proves that. When the community mobilizes, when all of the adults get together and do what we know is right, whether it’s elected officials, local advocates, school system officials, we really can get something amazing done for kids. And that’s what’s so energizing about this whole thing.

BILL FERGUSON: And I still feel a little bit overwhelmed because I’m just so blown away by this day. It’s eight years of work and fighting at every, every corner to get what kids deserve. This is- at the end of the day I’m inspired by this, because it truly reflects what kids deserve. This is what a school should look like for all kids.

ROBBYN LEWIS: I’m very excited, overwhelmed. I think it’s a great opportunity for kids in this community to know that, you know, people care about them. People care about how they learn, where they learn, and what they learn.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Elected officials at the event brought their perspectives not only on what the school’s opening would mean to Baltimore, but their roles in the success of Baltimore students.

LARRY HOGAN: We not only fully funded education in all 24 jurisdictions of the state, but we went far and above, fully funding by investing a record $25 billion into K-12 education. No governor in the history of the state has ever invested more. We’ve invested $5.5 billion just into Baltimore City schools alone. We’ve invested $5.5 billion into Baltimore City, $3.8 [billion] of that into schools in the city. This is far and above the legislative spending formulas, and it’s in spite of declining enrollment.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Remarks from Governor Hogan seemed to contradict advocates’ understanding of how we arrived at this point, and what needs to happen to secure quality schools for all of Baltimore students.

ROBBYN LEWIS: It will be voting to choose leaders who will invest in Baltimore City. Who will see us as a jewel, and an asset, not as a problem. I’ll be voting for people who will put the needs of the vulnerable at the forefront, because when you take care of the least among us, you take care of all of us. That’s a big part of our job.

BEBE VERDERY: Well, we know that we need to pass a new funding formula, because Baltimore City is severely underfunded, and many schools across the state are also. So we’ll be working with many community advocates to pass a new funding formula under the Kirwan Commission. But we also need to add more buildings to the plan. As you said, there’s 24-28 schools in the plan now. But we don’t want this drop off. We don’t want there to be a cliff where the school buildings stop. We need to add more schools to the building plan.

BILL FERGUSON: The two biggest issues right now, one is on the operations side of the House, and that’s going to be with the Kirwan Commission. We have got to see a major effort around the Kirwan Commission. And it’s going to largely- the governor’s race is be very important. That will largely determine the momentum of the Kirwan Commission. But it is absolutely essential that we move something this year for operating dollars.

The other thing is that we’re still working on capital dollars. Last year we passed something that requires the state to do an assessment of facilities. It’s going to tell us what we already know. Baltimore City’s facilities are largely deficient. And so hopefully that will help us to prioritize capital dollars for the highest need in a more equitable fashion. Not an equal distribution, but an equitable distribution. And so that’s going to be another on the capital side of the House. We’re going to, we’re going to be spending a lot of time trying to make sure that that ranking system actually leads to investments.

TRACEY GARRETT: For those communities that are thinking of that, I know they want this, but they gotta organize, and they gotta be consistent.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Despite the promise of opening new schools, there are many students and educators who will return to buildings that will continue to have failing systems and infrastructure.

DR. SONJA SANTELISES: One of the things that we’ll be reporting on publicly in an upcoming board meeting is all of the lessons learned from January and our heat and climate challenges. Then we’ll have more buildings that will have remote temperature reads. We have far firmer protocols in place for the temperature of young people in classroom spaces and when that temperature is unacceptable. We had members of our state delegation from the city who in light of the challenges from the past winter not only got us 15 million extra dollars, which in some ways is a drop in the bucket, but in a number of ways is significant, they not only got us the 15 million extra dollars, but they got us flexibility in that $15 million.

So we have that additional money we’ve put towards maintenance, we’ve put towards putting interim measures in place. We’ve added from our own City Schools budget an additional 15 staff positions, because frankly the ratio of oversight for building facilities was much too high. It was double or triple what it is in some other jurisdictions. So we brought that down. We’re also going to be reporting on partnerships with outside organizations, outside private organizations, who after our challenges in January reached out and said, how can we help? And so they’ve been partnering with our teams. We’ve got kind of a new, what we call a blitz protocol, where we go in in advance very systematically to buildings, not waiting for the concerns to bubble up, but to be proactive. So I’m actually really excited, really excited to report to the public what we have in place. All the learning, and frankly, the real strategic use of the additional dollars that we were able to secure through the help of our city delegation to the state.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: What else you want to tell me about your new school?

KENZHI JOHNSON: I think it’s going to be fun.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: All right. Thank you, Kenzhi.

TRACEY GARRETT: My hopes in general for the new school year is that kids come here as another home away from home. That it’s a home environment that they know that they belong. And because we’re combining three schools into one, that’s going to be important for every child to know that they belong here. And we’ve messaged that to our teachers, it’s through our cafeteria staff, custodians, everyone. No one should be asking anybody what school do you come from if they happen to have a mistake or something. It’s all about you’re here, you belong here, and how do we make it better?

GWENDOLYN LINDSAY: I would hope that they would be the next mayor, the next governor, the next senator, the next president of the United States. We could be very, very proud that we could say that they are from Cherry Hill.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: This is Khalilah Harris reporting for The Real News Network. Stay with us as we continue to bring you deep reporting on education issues from Baltimore and beyond, because the future depends on knowing.

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Khalilah M. Harris is a host and executive producer at the Real News Network focused on the Baltimore Bureau, education reporting, and social commentary. Khalilah brings a unique perspective to curating content from an extensive career working to expand access to opportunity through an equity lens in community organizing, education, education policy, youth advocacy, and building an inclusive workforce. In addition to her background as an attorney and researcher, Khalilah brings experiences from the grassroots as a founder of a Baltimore City school focused on social justice, to co-founding a local community collaborative called the Coalition of Black Leaders in Education. She organizes nationally with the EduColor movement and served as the first Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. A proud alum of Morgan State University, Khalilah also obtained her doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania, and her law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law.