Eunice Davage-Jones and Shanee Richardson knock on doors around Baltimore to encourage families to enroll their kids in city schools. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)
After going door to door for two hours, Eunice Davage-Jones' knee ached and Shanee Richardson sweated. Their knocks had gone mostly unanswered at dozens of rowhouses as they canvassed East Baltimore in search of students.
"They think we're the police, or social services," Richardson, a teacher's aide, surmised.
Eight days into a citywide campaign to stem the tide of children leaving Baltimore public schools, the two women had climbed countless porch steps and knocked on more than 500 doors. They were part of a new summer street corps of educators hired to track down students who stopped going to city schools and encourage their parents to re-enroll them.
Most parents weren't home. Most children were already enrolled, parents and grandparents said. Davage-Jones and Richardson were undaunted.
There are easier ways to earn $3,000 this summer, Davage-Jones said. But their mission was about so much more than a paycheck.
"The streets are calling our kids," said Davage-Jones, recalling the memory of a high school freshman gunned down last year. "I'm anxious to get one back."
They trudged toward the end of North Linwood Avenue on this breezy evening. Their white T-shirts said "Bringing Baltimore back one child at a time."
Forty members of the Baltimore Teachers Union have deployed across Baltimore for five weeks this summer to shore up school enrollment. More than 1,000 students dropped out or transferred to other school districts last year. And the city school system loses $11,100 in state funding for each student who leaves. The losses contributed to a $130 million budget shortfall this year and the first teacher layoffs in a decade.
Davage-Jones, 39, worked 16 years as a guidance counselor, teacher and principal before she got a pink slip last month. She was working as a guidance counselor at Benjamin Banneker Eubie Blake Academy for Arts & Sciences, a boys charter school in North Baltimore. Some 115 people were laid off last month, including librarians, assistant principals and 13 classroom teachers.
"There's no time for bitterness. I'm hurt the district let me go, but for these kids it's their lives," Davage-Jones said. "We have kids who come one day and you never see them again. You bang on doors. You go looking for them. Every now and then you see them on the corner and that's scary."
The women walked up to another rowhouse in Madison-Eastend and the door eased open.
"Hello. I'm Eunice and this is my partner, Shanee. We're from Baltimore City public schools and we're canvassing the neighborhood to make sure all students between the ages of 3 and 21 are enrolled."
The man at the door said he didn't have children.
Only 30 percent of the time will someone open the door for them, Davage-Jones said. Organizers said that in two weeks, canvassers across the city had knocked on nearly 6,000 doors and spoken to about 1,070 people. Their results won't be known until the campaign ends in late July.
The recruiting effort, coupled with a blitz of radio commercials, aims to stanch three straight years of enrollment declines. The Baltimore public school population peaked in 1969 with 193,000 students. Enrollment has dwindled to an estimated 82,350 students today.