“I treat all of my students the same. I don’t play favorites” is a fairly common claim made in schools across the country. And while well intentioned, in a city like Baltimore, where many of our students come from homes that lack sufficient resources, treating students “the same” can sometimes mean widening the gaps between the haves and the have nots. The best and most dedicated teachers among us find innovative ways to create not equality but equity for their students. And when entire school communities work together in this effort, we create the proverbial village that nurtures the whole child.
While there are many things that fall outside of our immediate control, there are two things that school communities can do to directly impact all of our students: implement and teach curriculum that includes (rather than exiles) the students we are teaching and fully invest ourselves into our students not just as ID numbers but as people we genuinely care about. Since 1997, Baltimore City College has been dedicated to the International Baccalaureate (IB) program to better prepare our students to be active participants in the global world and to be exposed to a rigorous academic curriculum that would prepare them to be successful in college. With course work that calls on students to engage with the works of Allende, Adichie, Coates and local authors like D. Watkins, students see themselves reflected in the world they are learning about.
Despite being a magnet high school, City is not immune to the issues of poverty that plague Baltimore. Over 60 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. At most schools like ours, the rigorous AP and IB classes are reserved for the top of the class academically, which usually also means economically. However, when our principal, Cindy Harcum, herself a City graduate, took over in 2011, she challenged us to rethink our policies: What if every student who walked into our school was given not just the opportunity but the tools necessary to be successful in these programs?
Since then we have shifted to an “IB for All” approach. Any one of our 1,300 students who wants to enroll in the full IB diploma program has an opportunity to do so. Understanding that equity doesn't just mean access and opportunity, but must include support and resources, we worked as a school community to completely renovate our library space, transforming it into the “Center for Teaching and Learning” which includes a research center, a math center and a writing center, all modeled after college centers, complete with student tutors who advise and teach other students, under teacher guidance, in order to ensure that every student has the tools needed to be successful in these challenging classes.
The results have been remarkable: 85 percent of this year’s senior class took IB exams compared to just over 50 percent in 2011. With a truly equitable approach, we have been able to improve the educational outcomes of our students from the most difficult circumstances. While nationwide only about 20 percent of low-income students participate in rigorous academic programs, at City our rate is at 57 percent and growing. And maybe most significantly, of the 258 seniors who participated in the IB program last year, over half (53 percent) come from families where they will be the first person to attend college. That means that students who generationally had been locked out of higher education are receiving the tools and opportunities to change the trajectory of their families’ lives. Students like Tierra, a young woman who came to City immensely talented but unsure if she was capable of keeping up, unsure if college was for her because no one in her family had ever been, who last month moved into her dorm at Howard University, to begin her journey as a business major who one day can help other students like her in her community.
That’s what the village looks like. It’s creating a community that cares not just about test scores and not just about the kids at the top, but a community that gives all of its students the tools necessary to meet the challenges and rigor of high expectations so that they can eventually pay it forward and make the village even stronger. I’m proud to be a part of that village, and I’m excited to see what the new school year holds for the next wave of capable students; many of whom were counted out but will go forward to be counted on.
Sedrick Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a social studies teacher and director of admissions at Baltimore City College; he’s also a doctoral student at UMBC and an adjunct professor in literacy education at Loyola University Maryland.