Baltimore City has many reasons to be proud of Brooklyn's Ben Franklin High School. It was designated one of the country's five best community schools in 2015. Its teen parenting center ensures young mothers' graduation. Its family stability program kept 120 families from losing their homes. Its 80 partners — including small businesses, social service agencies, corporations and churches — provide internships, tutoring and other resources for students and their families.
All of this occurs in a neighborhood that never before had a high school, where many the parents never finished their secondary education. Enrollment and attendance have increased significantly since 2010, suspensions have fallen, and there is now a waiting list to gain entrance. A recent graduate received the prestigious Goldman Prize for environmental activism, for her leadership of her peers in blocking the country's largest incinerator from locating a mile from the school.
As the former director of the Social Work Community Outreach Service at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, it was my pleasure to watch the beginning of Ben Franklin High's transformation. Delegations from across the country as well as from China and the Republic of Korea have visited Ben Franklin High to study and emulate its successes.
Yet The Sun reports that the state has named Ben Franklin High one of the "worst-performing schools" in the city. How could this happen? How could our state's educational leaders somehow miss all this success in their measurement of school performance? Herein lies the failure of test scores to capture what is actually happening in our educational system. Assessing success based on test scores completely misses the context in which this and other schools in our city operate.
Take a single hypothetical student, "Brianna." Is Brianna eligible for free lunch, a marker of familial poverty? Is she depressed, traumatized by recent murders or other crime on her street, or does she have special needs? Does she come from a single-parent household? Did her parent, guardian or caregiver go to college or even high school? Does she have a desk or table at home where she can do her homework? Or a bed? Is her family facing eviction? Is she pregnant? And what about her peers — how many have similar issues, which tend to cluster in neighborhoods?
What about her school — does it have safe drinking water, air-conditioning and heat? Do teachers and administrators have essential resources, from computers to toilet paper and adequate classrooms, so they can focus on teaching?
What about the neighborhood crime rate? Or the number of alcohol outlets she passes on her way to school? Is her school accessible by public transportation? How far must she and her family walk to reach a supermarket selling fresh fruit and vegetables? How is the air quality? Are homes placed near major arteries where 18-wheelers belch out harmful exhaust? Are there well-maintained and affordable houses that families can rent or buy? Or a clean, well-lit park where she, her family, and friends can gather and play safely? Is there sufficient and accessible employment for the adults in her community?
The community schools approach recognizes that student success lies in addressing not only the whole child but the family, neighborhood and community. It turns the school into the center of a web of services and relationships that address the many and diverse challenges our children and their families face. Achieving proficiency as measured by test scores is a worthwhile goal. But test scores will never measure where our kids are coming from or what they face every day. Blaming this context on "troubled schools" will never turn the situation around. We have communities in crisis, and improving the conditions and life chances of everyone in these communities is essential to student success.
I continue to be incredibly proud of Ben Franklin High School. I know its community context, and I have witnessed its astounding successes. Far from being a "troubled school," it is a beacon of hope and possibility in a neighborhood abandoned by the city, state,and industry for decades.
As someone who worked hard to help Ben Franklin High get to where it is today, I welcome more attention and more resources from the city and the state. But I hope those resources come, not because this is a school in trouble, but because it is a model for how schools and communities can come together, face harsh conditions, overcome them, and succeed.
Dick Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired as the director of the Social Work Community Outreach Service at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.