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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It is a community college literature class in Pennsylvania.
Laid-off mill workers, retirees and students fresh out of high school choose their seats and prepare for the first lecture.
Their professor, a big guy with eyes that brighten at this
new adventure looks out at the class and asks,
“Who is paying to be here?”
Some raise their hands quickly, others raise their hands almost
reluctantly, trying to understand the point.
Nodding at the forest of hands, the professor asks another question.
“Who is being paid to be here?”
At this, the professor raises his hand. He tilts his head to the class and says,
“Then I must be your employee. It is my job to ensure that this class meets your needs and expectations.”
Thinking back on this, the now retired professor glows with pride.
If teachers would greet their young students with a pledge to help them learn and grow, he said, then they could share this great adventure of learning together. Why force students to memorize and recite the prepared lesson of the day when they can learn so much more pursuing their own interests and goals?
In an educational system where curriculum is enforced upon
students, where is there room for curiosity, collaboration, and the
empowerment of students, teachers and parents?
This professor turned his classroom right side up, helping his
students find joy and purpose in their own learning and growth.
When I left him, the professor flashed that mischievous smile of one who inspires magic and delight in others.
The 21st Century School building project is off to a rocky start.
School closings and mergers have angered students, parents and communities.
Estimates of constructions costs have been higher than anticipated.
Moving students to temporary schools has been problematic.
The school design process has generally lacked the outreach, communication and collaboration it needs to be effective.
And almost every project is running behind schedule.
It has been a lot to ask of Baltimore City Schools to go from putting up a few buildings each decade to renew all of its schools in a decade, especially as the district is shedding staff each year in response to budget cuts.
But if we focus on making three improvements now, we can still build our schools, our learning and our communities as we promised at the beginning of this process.
1) We need to decide what kind of schools we are building.
Are we simply building schools with new windows, air conditioning and design features?
Are we building new schools with space for after school programs run by community organizations?
Or are we building schools that also involve and promote our communities with services, education and opportunities?
This third type of school requires that we not only design our schools differently, but that we have to think differently about the role of our schools, the hours they are open, and how we welcome our parents, community members and organizations into the school.
If we build it they will come is a great assumption for a community school .. unless you lock it or charge fees for using it..which is what we do now.
2) We need to improve the outreach and collaboration of the school design process to include the concerns and wisdom of our teachers, students, parents, community members and experts.
I’ve spoken with school principals and teachers who had no idea of the status of the design or building process at their school and felt left out of the design decisions for their schools.
If we are building these schools to encourage teachers to collaborate, why isn’t this design process the perfect learning collaboration for teachers, students and design experts?
And why is the school design process run by City Schools running independently from the neighborhood design process run by Baltimore City?
3) We need to find better values in construction.
Independent building experts should be allowed to look over preliminary designs to find savings through design integration, better sourcing, bulk purchasing and long term savings.
We have a choice between checking some boxes on citizen involvement and building (clumsily) to the lowest allowed standard or blazing a trail for other school districts to follow. It’s time to decide which way we want to go.
Building More Than Buildings:
How the 21st Century Building Project can improve our learning, collaboration, and the schools we build.
When Andre Alonso announced the funding of the 21st Century School Building project in Baltimore City, he restated a quote from Winston Churchill:
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
It is a reminder of the importance of this shaping, and of our opportunity to build learning and community through the design process. If our buildings are to transform our education and our communities, we must first transform how we shape them.
Meaningful involvement of teachers, students, community members and experts in the design of these buildings can inform the architects and city planners of the needs, problems and hopes for the school and community. In turn, these experts can share their insights on how to create better functioning buildings, improve neighborhood design, and access job opportunities. This collaborative learning enables us to build not just a better school building, but also a better school culture and more successful students and communities.
Charrette or Charade?
The size and speed of the school construction project is daunting. It is easier to look across a nearly empty room and check the box for community involvement and move on. But if we are to build learning and gain the wisdom and support of our communities, we need to fill these rooms and strengthen relationships still aching from school closings. Poor communication, and short, disjointed public engagement is failing to create the sustained involvement and trust necessary for successful collaboration. Even staff and teachers have been left without valid information on the status of their school construction projects.
Failure to integrate the design process into school curriculum and after school programs robs our students of a golden opportunity to learn and to shape their future.
Shaping our learning (we don’t have to wait to collaborate).
Building and neighborhood design processes are perfectly suited for collaborative STEM and experiential learning—the learning these new schools are supposed to foster. Engaging students, faculty and community members in this learning can prepare them to participate in the design process while strengthening their skills in math, science, engineering, health, and economics.
Starting with their existing school, students can collect data on the temperatures, humidity, air quality, lighting, acoustics, and asthma triggers. They can study how to improve bus service, reduce energy use and storm water runoff at their school. This information can help inform the school design process and prepare students to examine larger questions including:
• What are the biggest problems in the community and how can our school help solve them?
• How can our school foster the health and learning of our students and community?
• How can our school help students and their families obtain economic and educational opportunities?
Studying these issues with planning experts and community members would bring more wisdom to the design processes and demonstrate how we can learn and collaborate to solve real problems. This is the educational and cultural transformation that Baltimore needs. If we are to build our promises, we need to start now with pilot programs and partners.
How Students Can Improve Their Health And Learning.
Our schools constantly test our students to measure their achievement.
But if we want to improve student achievement, it’s time for students to test their schools.
Are classrooms too hot or too cold?
Are pest and mold problems causing asthma attacks and absences?
Are students getting enough exercise and water?
Do students need glasses to read the board and their textbooks?
Does poor bus service cause students to be late or miss school?
Are lunches nutritious and palatable?
Why are so many students still failing to succeed in math and science?
Challenging students to investigate and improve their health and learning engages them in a meaningful, real world scientific inquiry.
It is a perfect fit for STEM, Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core curriculum.
Students get hands on training for careers in health, building, teaching, and social science.
Students see how they can use science and innovation to improve their lives.
Experiment You engages students as scientists and problem solvers in a very real and important experiment: how can we use our learning and innovation to improve our lives?
As a STEM based inquiry, students use surveys, observations, and tools to benchmark their health and the health and learning conditions at their school.
Students learn to create and use surveys to gain information on student health and school conditions.
How many students have missed school because of asthma related issues? What classrooms are too hot or cold? Where have students seen mold, mice or cockroaches? Are students getting enough healthy foods, sleep and exercise?
Tools for Schools
Using the Tools for Schools walk through assessment from EPA, students discover and report asthma triggers at their schools.
Operations Report Card
Using the Operations report card protocol from the Collaboration for High Performing Schools (CHPS) students collect and analyze data on the temperature, humidity, air quality, lighting and acoustics.
Energy Star Portfolio Manager
Using the Energy Star Portfolio Manager, students can benchmark the carbon footprint of their school and compare the energy use of their school to similar schools in their area. Students identify ways to eliminate energy waste at their school.Solving for …us.
After collecting this data, students are challenged to create improvements in each of these areas. Finding ways to improve their health and the conditions at their school engages students in real world problem solving at ground level.
Can cross ventilation reduce excessive heat in classrooms or does the air conditioning need to be fixed?
Why are the outdoor security lights on in the daytime?
How can students help reduce the amount of pests in the school without chemicals?
How can we reduce asthma related absences at our school?
Is there an easy way to screen students for vision problems?
Engaging students in solving problems which they face,
challenges them to take control and responsibility of their own learning and futures.
Every school is a laboratory and every student is an experiment.
The question is whether our students will remain lab rats running a maze, or whether they become scientists and innovators, using their learning to improve their conditions and outcomes. This is rich learning that grows the confidence and competence of our students. It is time.