A better Baltimore region depends upon quality education

Baltimore city and county schools CEOs: Young people must believe in the power of education.

The eyes of the world remain focused on what's occurring in Baltimore, but the issues underlying the recent unrest are neither new nor unique to our region. What we see people expressing is much more than anguish over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, as tragic as that event was. In addition to concern for Mr. Gray and his family, there is frustration and anger with policies, practices, systems and structures that benefit some and hinder others — that have maintained poverty and disenfranchised entire communities for many years, often through violence and lack of opportunity and hope.

While acknowledging this painful, complicated context, we cannot excuse the acts of violence committed by some of our young people last week. But we must, and will, accept our own responsibility — as the leaders of Baltimore City Public Schools and Baltimore County Public Schools — to expand opportunities for every child to reach his or her maximum potential.

The most enduring principle of public education in this nation is that, regardless of race, ethnicity, background or ZIP code, everyone has the chance to become whatever he or she wants to be — everyone gets a fair shot. Yet, for decades this ideal of upward mobility has not been a reality. In fact, most of us remain in or near the socioeconomic level in which we are born. Our young people are well aware of this sad and unfortunate fact. It is essential for our young people to know, and most importantly to believe, how bright their future can be through access to a high-quality education.

Together, we are responsible for inspiring nearly 200,000 students to not only dream big but to attain the skills and knowledge to achieve those dreams and realize their future. And let's be clear: The systemic issues related to equity, race and poverty that plague our cities are all too present in the suburbs as well. In this way, Baltimore and its surrounding counties are no different from neighborhoods all across our country. In Baltimore County, nearly 55,000 students are living in poverty. To put that in perspective, that is more students than are enrolled in Washington, D.C. Public Schools. In addition, fully 84 percent of Baltimore City students are from low income families. Therefore, we can't act in silos. We must work together as a region to identify solutions to ensure every child is prepared for success.

It is unacceptable not to respond to what we see occurring. In fact, we must disrupt the patterns that are keeping our students, particularly students of color and those living in poverty, from thriving. That's why, in schools, we're implementing higher learning expectations and supporting students in flexible ways to meet individual needs. That's a start, but we can't stop there. Just like adults, our students have a hierarchy of needs in which basic physiological and safety needs must be addressed before the academic stage can be set. We must continue implementing strategies to gauge and to address student engagement, hope and well-being — factors we know are critical to student success and that address the critical needs of the whole child. This includes providing adequate and appropriate access to student support services, i.e. social, emotional, and mental health needs — essentially providing wraparound services to our students and their families.

Our students are hurting, and we need to listen to their voices. Last week, in thousands of classrooms from Baltimore City to Baltimore County, with the guidance of dedicated educators who recognize that this is a monumental learning opportunity, we gave students safe spaces where they could express their ideas and share their frustrations. But equity training must continue without the influences that many times derail this much needed topic and conversation.

We marveled as our students modeled responsible civic engagement by planning and leading peaceful protests that did not get the media attention they deserved. We are asking that parents, members of law enforcement, elected and government leaders, business owners and all of our communities continue these conversations. This is a call for caring adults to serve ongoing roles in the lives of our youth within and outside of school — as mentors, extracurricular program leaders, internship and summer job providers.

This is the time to deepen our engagement and investment in youth in order to bring about social justice for a better Baltimore. As the leaders of our region's school systems, we believe this is the time to show the nation that while there are several domains that need to be addressed to solve the complex problems that lie ahead of us, it all begins with providing each child with a high-quality education.

Gregory E. Thornton is CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools; his email is CitySchoolsCEO@bcps.k12.md.us. S. Dallas Dance is superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools; his email is ddance@bcps.org.

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