Loyalty to public education

With so much attention focused on President Donald Trump's 100th day in office, it was easy to overlook Loyalty Day, as May 1 has come to be observed, and President Trump's call to "express our country's loyalty to individual liberties, to limited government, and to the inherent dignity of every human being." And that's just as well.

We don't need a law passed by Congress in the 1950s during the Cold War (reportedly to counter May Day rallies celebrating workers around the world) and annual proclamations by every president since Dwight Eisenhower to demonstrate our loyalty with flag waving and sloganeering. People marched with flags and banners over the weekend regardless to protest Mr. Trump's policies on everything from immigration to the environment. Of course, some turned out to support the president, as well.

None of them better demonstrated the notion of loyalty and commitment to our nation's future, however, than did those Baltimoreans who filled the sanctuary at Beth Am Synagogue in response to a call to discuss public education at a crossroads.

On a balmy Sunday afternoon, they came out to hear Sonja Santelises, the chief executive officer for city schools, and Freeman Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland,Baltimore County (UMBC). For more than an hour, the focus was the status of Baltimore's K-12 schools, in which some 80,000 children are currently enrolled, and the headline-grabbing challenges with which we are all too familiar.

Acknowledging growing income inequality and "a precipitous decline in public confidence in public institutions everywhere," Ms. Santelises said that the real question is whether public education can still serve as "an economic, social and cultural ladder" that prepares Americans to succeed regardless of the circumstances of birth. In the give-and-take over the course of about 90 minutes, what most struck me was the fundamental belief by most people there that in Baltimore, whether one is in Roland Park or in Sandtown-Winchester, the answer must be yes. That is despite concerns about budget deficits and safety, curriculum and test scores, racism and achievement gaps, the allure of independent schools and even the system's complicity in what is sometimes referred to as a schools-to-prison pipeline.

Mr. Hrabowski did not gloss over the reality of having a city school system with an enrollment that is 80 percent black and not particularly affluent. "I'd like to see more middle class people of all races in the city schools," he said, "because the more middle class people you have and the more whites you have, the more the public will care — the public taxpayers and Annapolis will care about the city."

A lot of people in that sanctuary, most of whom were not black, clearly care and want to do more than relive the good old days with fellow alums of the schools they once attended.

The parents among them were grappling with the tension that sometimes arises between their desire to support public schools and their very particular concern about what is the best choice for their own children. Mr. Hrabowski says he urges white parents to make an honest decision that takes into account whether they would feel comfortable with their child being in a classroom that was 80 percent black. Some black parents were concerned that their talented children are discouraged by white teachers and counselors from enrolling in advanced classes or pursuing certain enrichment programs. Some black teachers want to see their ranks increased. Currently, about 40 percent of city teachers are black.

Whatever the race of teachers and administrators, the schools must have the wherewithal to do a better job of meeting the needs of the students they have, including those suffering from the trauma of surviving violence in some of our war-torn neighborhoods. That means adjusting curriculum and services — and attitudes.

In his 100-day interviews, President Trump expressed surprise that the job to which he was elected is as difficult as it is. I cannot imagine what he'd think about running a public school system like Baltimore's. That work takes vision, grit, tough skin and sharp elbows. It also takes more forums like the one at Beth Am, where loyalty to an ideal — quality public education for all — means more than waving a flag.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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