When we talk about transforming Baltimore City Public Schools, we are talking about creating a new path for our children and the future of Baltimore.
We are talking about mending century long divides and segregation which still exist in our schools and our neighborhoods.
We are talking about the white and middle class flight from our city and city schools.
Even if the racial prejudice that created the inequities evaporates, we are still left with the stark disparities and divisions it caused.
If the choice of school integration of the 1950s was whether black students would take a dangerous walk into a better white school, the integration choice today in Baltimore is whether middle class white and black students will return to schools deprived of resources for decades.
As we prepare for the next state legislative session and the next federal administration we will probably hear about school vouchers, equal funding and curriculum. But will these create a viable path toward more effective and integrated schools?
To learn how to build this path, we are starting a conversation.
In this installment, Elizabeth Degi Mount, the Executive Director of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance (DBFA), talks about how the DBFA is working to support middle class families and schools in Baltimore. Mount talks with an informed candor and passion on the questions of school funding, white flight, equity and racial understanding.
I always joke that when you are pregnant in Baltimore and you are in the middle class, you make two phone calls.
First you call the OB, and then you call the real estate agent.
And that kind of progression, that first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby, then comes Towson,
that’s the school system losing, and the individual schools losing the creativity and the time and you know the opportunity to have another family within their school community. It’s also the system losing overall..
– Elizabeth Degi Mount
The video clips from this interview will be posted on the website. I hope that you will enjoy this learning and that you will join this conversation over the next few months. Let me know if you or someone you know would like to be interviewed for this series.
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Every year our schools test students. And every year these tests show that students in Baltimore City Public Schools perform far below state averages on all subjects. If we want better results, we need to invert the equation.
Students should test their schools.
This changes everything.
As students study their school, they become scientists, problem solvers and innovators.
Using scientific tools and protocols, students identify, quantify and analyze factors which affect their health and learning.
Then, they communicate, innovate, and engineer to create improvements in their school and their lives.
Since improvements in the school environment and operations benefit everyone in the building, this work creates a natural collaboration between students, teachers, staff and administrators as they seek solutions together.
• Can students, teachers and custodians find ways to reduce asthma triggers like dust, chemicals and pests?
• How can high schools screen students for vision problems?
• Can we eliminate bus idling at our schools?
• How can we improve student health?
How students test their school
Students use scientific tools and three different protocols to identify, quantify and analyze the health and learning at their school.
Tools for Schools (by EPA) is a checklist to identify asthma triggers at the school including chemicals, dust, pests, mold and bus idling. Early detection and remediation of asthma triggers can create a healthier school environment, lower absenteeism, and reduce maintenance and repair costs at schools. Students could identify whether green cleaning and integrated pest management protocols are being followed at their school and make or recommend improvements.
Operations Report Card (by the Collaborative for High Performing Schools) is a protocol for measuring the environmental factors that are correlated with learning: temperature, humidity, acoustics, lighting, and ventilation. Collecting and analyzing these factors can identify problems which affect student performance and ways to create improvements in these conditions.
Energy Star Portfolio Manager by EPA enables students to benchmark and compare the energy use of their school to similar schools in the area and to calculate the carbon footprint of their school building. Students will identify ways that the school could reduce energy use in a cost-effective manner.
Surveys developed by students will also help identify opportunities to help students succeed. The problems which students list on their anonymous surveys may not have been identified or addressed by administrators. Here are examples of issues we discovered during a project last year.
• Inadequate bus service caused some students to be late for school and others unable to attend after school programs.
• Some students wouldn’t drink water during the day because bathrooms were locked and hard to access.
• Cockroaches and mice were found throughout the building.
• Most classrooms were overheated during warm weather.
• HVAC systems were inadequately maintained.
• In some cases, teachers had refused to provide students access to water.
• Several students had severe vision problems which had not been screened or detected.
Discovering and remedying issues proactively enables schools to improve student performance and satisfaction prior to school climate surveys.
Experiment You engages engineers, building and health professionals with students as teachers and mentors. Working with professionals to solve problems creates a bridge between their learning and potential STEM training and careers.
Experiment You is designed to train teachers in a co-teaching model during in school instruction or after school programs. Teachers learn the skills and protocols for the program without having to attend professional development or certification courses.
Green School Certification and Sustainability
Experiment You can document the environmental work which teachers and students do toward gaining Maryland Green School certification. We can help schools apply for sustainability grants which would fund Experiment You programing and services to the school.
In Experiment Us, students would compare the conditions at their school to public and private schools in Baltimore City and surrounding counties. Students would determine whether school conditions are correlated to the racial and economic makeup of the student body at these schools. Students would examine current and proposed funding and policies at the state, local and national levels and make recommendations.
In Building US, students use the knowledge they gained in the Experiment You project to participate in the 21st Century School Building Project and the neighborhood design process. This learning could be integrated into engineering, technology, art, design and work readiness classes.
As an after school project, it would enable students, teachers, community members and building experts to work on design issues before and throughout the public planning process. This could deepen learning, strengthen school partnerships and better inform process of the needs of the clients and the community.
Upstream, Downstream engages students in learning about the environmental issues in their region and neighborhoods. Students would study the watershed for the Baltimore region and the watershed from their school. Students would study the regional air shed, their local air quality, and how proposed policies on air quality could affect their health.
Are Baltimore schools starting to pay attention to student
leadership and ideas?
Schools often talk about preparing students for citizenship, but rarely offer students a voice or a seat at the table on issues that affect them.
But if the student leadership conference at Johns Hopkins University is any indication, Dr. Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, is ready to for students to take a larger role in improving their schools. Urging students to speak up about problems in their schools and to be problem solvers, Santelises casts her vote for our students and our future.
And these students, who collaborated thoughtfully and compassionately throughout the day, are ready to step up, speak up, and help solve problems at their schools.
As educators and foundations consider how to expand STEM learning in Baltimore, I’d like to offer a few recommendations.
First, define STEM broadly.
When we see STEM as a way of understanding and solving problems of all kinds, it becomes more than a club for kids who like robotics or computer coding.
STEM can help us do everything: it can help us cook better cupcakes, build better skateboards, improve our health, and design better bus routes. When we see that STEM is a tool kit to help us improve our world, it becomes available to everyone and applicable everywhere. Sure, STEM can stay in the science and computer labs, but what if we also let students in on the fact that its also valuable on the athletic field, the board room, the Mayor’s office and the hospital?
Second, use STEM to solve real problems.
I love Frisbee throwing robots as much as anyone, but does the world need another one?
When will we start creating STEM projects designed to solve real problems our students and our community are experiencing?
When are students going to help improve the bus service for their schools, test the water in their nearest stream or find ways to improve their health and learning?
Here are some quick ways to add STEM learning opportunities in Baltimore:
Water quality testing
Michel Anderson, an educator with Blue Water Baltimore is starting to train teachers to test water at their schools and local streams.
Funding to help transport students to their local streams could help students understand the water quality at their local streams. Putting these tests together in an online data base could help students (and everyone else) understand water quality in the Baltimore area watershed.
Benchmark health and learning at schools
Students can benchmark their health (asthma, vision and absenteeism) and the health of the school environment.
Using Tools for Schools from the EPA, students can identify existing asthma triggers like mold, chemicals and pests.
They can test the temperature, humidity, lighting and noise levels in their classrooms with the Operations Report Card by the Collaborative for High Performing Schools (CHPS). Entering their school energy use into Energy Star Portfolio Manager, enables students to compare the energy use at their school to similar schools and to calculate the carbon footprint of their school.
Engage students in the design of their schools and neighborhoods
The 21st Century School Building project, the program to construct or renovate Baltimore City Public Schools, is a perfect for STEM learning.
Students should be designing CAD drawings of potential school designs, talking with architects and construction managers, calculating construction costs and evaluating bus and walking routes.
But so far, students and their teachers are barely consulted in the design and citizen involvement process.
Schools could integrate this learning into their curriculum and engaging the citizen involvement processes with after school programs where parents, teachers, citizens and students work through these important decisions.
Revive Saturday Science
Don Thomas, an astronaut, ran a very successful Saturday morning program at Towson University where students could see and experience science programs which ranged from space exploration to crime scene investigations; from wildlife studies in the Amazon to pyrotechnics. This program was free and would fill an auditorium with students and parents interested in learning. After the program, students could sign up for a short lab experience.
Reviving the program (preferably with Thomas) would give Baltimore area students a great way to experience science.
If a local university isn’t willing to sponsor this program, perhaps it could be run as a collaborative with UMBC, Johns Hopkins, Loyola, Morgan and Towson taking turn presenting programs. This could be a great recruiting opportunity for these institutions as they show off their professors to their prospective students.
Facilitators pace the front of the room, poking their hands at graphs projected on the board. Huddled around workbench tables, a mix of school officials, college professors and informal educators stare between the board and the colorful pie charts, glowing like a dessert menu on their computer screens.
Let’s call it a STEM learning project for educators.
How to create a thriving ecosystem for STEM learning in Baltimore.
This is a room of very smart people, working hard to create STEM learning opportunities in Baltimore. This is a good effort. But even with great cooks, it’s tough to make a great chocolate cake without chocolate.
So where are the business leaders, the medical and innovation companies, the construction trades and government agencies?
And where are the kids and their parents?
Sure, this is a daytime event, so kids are in school, parents at work, but when and where do they have a turn to talk about the type of STEM education that they want in their communities?
One of the best points at the workshop is that STEM learning should be available to everyone. Think of it as a thousand points of learning.
But in at least one group, “equitable” was used to describe targeting STEM opportunities to those without resources.
The digital divide is big in Baltimore with students using state of the art computers and technology while other students may have to write and research their papers at home on their cell phones. In a computer coding program some students needed to be paid to learn computer coding or they would have to take a part time job to pay bills instead.
But in our attempt to provide equitable STEM education, will we create programs that are as divided by race, income and address as the rest of Baltimore?
STEM learning should be a banquet where we share the bounty of learning together.
We have an opportunity to start programs which include students, parents, citizens and tourists based simply on their curiosity and willingness to learn. We can create a culture of learning which is pervasive and inclusive throughout Baltimore.
The question shouldn’t be whether we improve STEM education to students in poverty or whether we create STEM opportunities for everyone. It is how soon and well we can do both.
Are Baltimore schools starting to pay attention to student
leadership and ideas?
It may be too early to tell. It is one thing to ask students to speak up.
It is another to listen.
But if the student leadership conference at Johns Hopkins University is any indication, students at Baltimore schools are willing to take on a larger role in changing their schools and their world.
Schools have traditionally been run as a top down dictatorship with students sharing the last rung of powerlessness with their parents.
So this invitation for students to express their voice and solve problems at their schools is encouraging.
Is it possible that this period of deep political and social conflict is the perfect moment to build leaders who actually solve problems?