Baltimore's violence is worse than Chicago's, but can our schools be better?

Take note, Baltimore: Major urban school districts with high numbers of poor children are not, in fact, faced with insurmountable obstacles when it comes to properly educating kids, according to a discussion draft of a Stanford University study published Monday by the Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Highlighted in the analysis were Chicago’s spectacular improvements: Disadvantaged children there entered school testing low on standardized tests, but over five years — from third to eighth grades — they grew six years academically, catching up with their peers despite, as the New York Times noted in a story about the study, “perpetual budget cuts, contentious school closings, rising crime and financial crisis.”

Meanwhile, Baltimore students grew an average of 3.2 academic years over the same time period, the study showed, and the school district ranked third worst in the nation — coming in right behind Montgomery, Ala.

The city certainly has its challenges, including large classes, overwhelmed teachers, rote learning, inadequate resources and dilapidated facilities. And our new CEO of schools, Sonja Santelises, has only been here about a year and a half; I get that it takes time to turn this listing ship of 84,000 students around. But I would encourage her to recoup the sense of urgency with which she assumed this job.

Actually, I’d encourage her to step outside her marble tower some day on her lunch break for an unannounced visit to the school that sits across the street, in the shadow of her North Avenue headquarters.

Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary looks like a prison. Natural light is scant and few windows dot this fortress with 292 students. The cinderblock walls are largely unadorned. Missing floor tiles have been patched with mismatched linoleum. ​Water coolers, a stop-gap solution to lead-tainted pipes, are often empty. The joyful, “experiential learning” that Ms. Santelises told a Sun reporter she hoped to introduce in all the city schools is missing.

Indeed, in keeping with the prison-like physical structure, the school’s website proclaims “one of the most important lessons education should teach is discipline. While it does not appear as a subject, it underlies the whole educational structure. It is the training that develops self-control, character, orderliness, and efficiency.”

Really? Discipline is what schools consider “the most important lesson”? If Ms. Santelises takes me up on this challenge and makes an unannounced visit, I suspect she will hear that message being reinforced as she strolls through the dreary halls.

In our hard-scrabble city, where funds for school construction and maintenance can be hard to come by, I know that it is possible for good learning to take place in crummy settings. But I also know that the physical environment sends a message to children about what our priorities are, about what our aspirations are for these children and about our commitment to teaching them in ways that are respectful, creative and challenging.

At Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary, the learning that goes on mirrors the inferior environment: Of the 40 students who took the standardized PARCC test in third grade, no more than three of them were reading at or above grade-level standards in 2017.

Across town, in the spiffy Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, 55.7 percent of students are reading at or above grade level in 3rd grade.

At Tunbridge Public Charter School, where Ms. Santelieses told The Sun she sends her own kids (except for the eldest, who attends the private school Garrison Forest), 42 percent of the students are meeting or exceeding grade level standards in reading.

Clearly, 56 percent and 42 percent mean there is plenty of room for improvement in these schools, too, but the gap between them and Dallas F. Nicholas is significant and deeply troubling.

Back in May 2016, as Ms. Santelises assumed the CEO job, she told Sun reporter Erica L. Green: "I'm not a savior. I'm not stupid enough, or naive enough, to think I know everything or that I can save anybody. I'm just here to do the work."

I would urge her to aim higher, to radically shake things up, to take a quiet, unobtrusive walk through each of our city schools.

Karen Houppert (khouppe1@jhu.edu) is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist and associate director of the Masters of Arts in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University.

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