During the dog days of summer, you might drive by a school and think that it looks lonely with such an empty playground, no parents bustling in and out, no buses pulling up, no crossing guards escorting students from corner to corner. A school doesn’t feel the same without children.
But there is nothing lonely about Callaway Elementary School this summer. Staff members are gathering for the professional learning and the planning it takes to make a school year successful. Our school is tucked into the Callaway-Garrison neighborhood of northeast Baltimore, where we serve mostly low-income, African American families. Over the past few years, we have celebrated our students’ improvements in reading and writing, but their achievement gains haven’t been all that we want for them. The truth is that if you are a low-income African American student who isn’t reading proficiently by third grade, you are eight times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school; almost 70 percent of African American men under age 35 who didn’t complete high school have been incarcerated at some point. Given these grim statistics, we don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to say that improving literacy education can actually be a life and death matter.
Reading and writing, along with speaking and listening, are at the heart of learning in all subjects. Last year, Baltimore City Public Schools launched its blueprint for success, a plan to build a generation of future leaders for our city, with literacy at its academic center. Twenty schools have been selected to lead the way and become resources for other school across the city. Proudly, Callaway is one of them.
This summer, we are preparing for changes in the way we will approach literacy instruction, and it’s absolutely invigorating. We now have a full-time literacy coach to support teachers all year long. At a small school like ours, a coach to help teachers improve instruction for every child is a rare and welcome resource. Having a coach means that we can raise the bar and hold ourselves to high expectations, just as we do for our students. And, hey, if hometown heroes like Michael Phelps and the Ravens have coaches on their team, so can we.
We’re also getting ready for a new curriculum in English language arts for kindergarten through 8th grade. The city school system chose “Wit & Wisdom” with feedback from teachers, principals, parents and other community members. It’s based on the best available research on how people learn about language and how to read and write, and how to motivate and challenge students to want to be readers and writers — including providing books written by and about people they identify with. It includes literature and nonfiction, to appeal to students’ different interests — while teaching them not only about reading and writing, but also about different subject areas. And it even includes visual arts and ways to “read” images and pictures. Our teachers are out in force at Callaway these summer days, learning about the new curriculum and getting a jump on planning lessons to make it come alive for all our students.
Ensuring that we are ready to hit the ground running with effective, engaging instruction beginning on day 1 of the new school year is our mission and our passion. The work isn’t easy; there’s no one-size solution to meet the needs of every child, each of whom brings unique strengths and challenges to our classrooms. But we are energized by the direction that city schools and Callaway are taking and by the promise of doing better for our students — so they can do better themselves.
So, when you find yourself headed past our school — and other Baltimore public schools — if you see an open window or a little cluster of cars around the corner in the parking lot, we hope that you will think of the high hopes and great learning that we have in store for students this fall.
Miguel Cervantes Del Toro (MCervantesDelToro@bcps.k12.md.us) is principal of Callaway Elementary School, where Rachel F. Haynes is a literacy coach.