The Catch-22 in Baltimore schools

Op-ed: We love our Baltimore neighborhood, but we love our kid more. So we're moving for the schools.

Of the 10 or so school-age children I know of on my street, not one of them goes to our zoned elementary/middle school. They all go to private schools or one particular charter. And this is not in a ritzy section of Baltimore; we're solidly middle class. Our row houses typically sell for what many consider starter-home prices. I know because I've spent a fair amount of time looking at the comparables lately. We plan to list our house in the spring and move north because of the school. We can't comfortably afford to go private, and we haven't found the right charter. So we won't stay.

That may make us traitors to another group of parents in the neighborhood, those who, like us, have young kids, some entering kindergarten next year or within a few years, but unlike us, are willing to bet that their collective participation can improve our zoned school.

They have more faith in the system than we do — certainly more faith than our governor, who recently called Baltimore schools an "absolute disaster." It was a callous and dismissive statement, made without regard for the educators and children within them. The schools are not a disaster, but many are deeply challenged. And it doesn't help that officials have to fight for every crumb of assistance.

Most of the student population in the city comes from families who are struggling financially. Some don't have enough to eat or clean clothes or heated houses. Their parents may be working multiple jobs — or no jobs. They may see drugs and violence on their streets or in their homes. Many need multiple supports just to get to a place where their young minds are settled enough to learn. Their public school facilities are in poor shape, and a plan to rebuild or replace them is behind schedule. Teachers and administrators are under-resourced, and some are under-trained.

When the new schools CEO, Sonja Santelesis, spoke with The Sun's editorial board last summer, she acknowledged this and spoke of meeting children at their levels, addressing not just their education needs, but also the underlying issues that may be holding them back academically. That's commendable and necessary. But it's not what many middle class families who have the means to leave the city (and often have come through financial and social struggles of their own) are focused on.

We want what everyone wants: to give our children better than we had, or at least as good. That's the luxury we get to aim for, having already been able to meet our families' basic needs through hard work and/or whatever privileged background we may have inherited. Ms. Santelises likely understands that; she told a reporter last year she planned to send her oldest child to a private school because of the science opportunities it provides that the city's public system thus far doesn't.

At my zoned elementary, there is a new library, but there is no music, foreign language or coding class, and recess seems forever in jeopardy. On a recent tour, the guide said little about academics; instead, she highlighted the murals students had painted in the halls and answered parent questions about the free breakfasts all children are entitled to. The principal spoke to the group afterward, lamenting the dire budgeting decisions she must make. This was the presentation given in a school that is actively looking to recruit more students.

Contrast that with another tour a few months ago of an elementary school just over the county line. There, they talked of meeting children at their levels to raise already high achievement. They had a TV studio, bouncy ball chairs for restless kids and ukulele lessons for second graders (funded by the parent teacher association). They talked of limiting homework based on the latest research and challenging children across disciplines.

They sold that school. And we've almost bought it. We plan to look for homes there, because it seems irresponsible not to, but also in a different Baltimore City district because we are city people.

My husband attended public schools in Baltimore and went on to graduate from an Ivy League college. We know there are some good schools here, though they are too few, and they also face facilities and funding challenges. We also know that moving doesn't guarantee academic success. And so, we're scheduled to take another city school tour next month.

We don't want to leave, but we also don't want to be pioneers in a school overhaul if we don't have to. It's a frustrating position many city parents face, and I recognize the Catch-22: Baltimore needs more families to improve its schools, but without improved schools, many families won't stay.

But while I love my neighborhood, I love my daughter more.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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