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City residents want more well-rounded education, higher standards

Gregory Thornton
(Kristyna Wentz-Graff / Baltimore Sun)

A local nonprofit asked residents of Baltimore what they think about their public schools and found both optimism and frustration in neighborhoods from Pigtown to Hamilton.

The survey showed city residents want a lot more from their schools, including higher academic standards, more help for struggling young teachers and better management of resources, residents said in interviews over the course of a year for the survey, which is to be released Wednesday.

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But still there was optimism among some residents who see more parents staying in the city schools instead of choosing to leave for better county public and private schools.

"People are excited about the city," said Elizabeth Kennedy, who led a roundtable discussion among city residents and whose eldest child attends Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School in Bolton Hill. "You are seeing a momentum building of people who love to live in cities and are choosing to send their children there."

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But Kennedy and other residents said they want consistently good schools across the city so that parents feel secure that they can send their children to them and aren't caught in a last-minute scramble to get their children into the top-tier charter schools. The Montessori Public Charter School, for instance, has about 1,000 children on its waiting list.

The Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit that works as an intermediary between the city schools and the community to improve academic achievement, held a series of kitchen conversations around Baltimore to gauge how residents perceive the public schools.

"People spoke with tremendous passion about the need for community and parent involvement in schools," said Roger Schulman, president of the Fund, adding that residents want schools to be more open to the public.

Some interviewed said they couldn't always find the front door to a school and sometimes felt unwelcome when they walked in. Others said they are willing to volunteer in their local schools, but didn't know how.

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"It is heartening to see so many of the district's current priorities echoed in the comments of the community: A need to redouble efforts to enlist families and communities in supporting Baltimore's children and to encourage their involvement in schools; [and] an emphasis on the importance of recruiting and developing effective staff," schools CEO Gregory Thornton said in a statement.

Dawnetta D. Jenkins, a Waverly mother and aunt of students at four different city schools, said the city residents who gathered for a kitchen conversation at her house talked about the misperceptions her neighbors have about their local elementary school, Barclay Elementary. She said most of their impressions are based on gossip, not fact.

"The parents need to go into the school and visit, talk to the principal and get both sides of the story," said Jenkins, who is a board member at the Fund. "The schools in the area are really good."

The survey also highlighted the need for more challenging academic classes, not just at select schools in the city, but across the school system. Students need a more well-rounded education that gives them heavy doses of the arts and other non-core courses, such as physical education, the community members said.

For the survey, 859 people participated in 63 conversations in 55 communities across the city over the year.

The survey divided responses by income level and found that those who identified themselves as making $25,000 or less a year were very concerned about schools providing before- and after-school programs for students that would keep them safe. They wanted children to be offered engaging activities where they could pursue an interest.

In wealthier communities, residents talked about wanting higher standards, top-notch curriculum and better college preparation, Schulman said. Too many students, even those at the top of their graduating classes, must sometimes take remedial classes at college.

The report recommends that Thornton provide families with a clearer indication from kindergarten through 12th grade whether their children are meeting standards that will put them on a course to college or a good job after college.

Thornton said he looks forward to working with the Fund "to look at these data more deeply — for example, to analyze differences in responses among participants who do or do not have children currently enrolled in City Schools."

Residents believe the city schools get less funding than in neighboring school systems, and that there is a disparity between funding for the best schools in the city and lower-performing ones.

In fact, the city schools spend significantly more per pupil than the surrounding county schools.

The report also highlighted other entrenched problems. While the schools have some outstanding veterans who are not receiving enough praise, the survey said, the city has too many young teachers who don't enter the classroom prepared.

The Fund calls for better teacher training, including training that is differentiated for young teachers and veterans.

An unidentified resident from the Howard Park and Arlington area of the city said in the report: "I have known a lot of new teachers and they come prepared to teach. They did not come prepared for the challenges that they had in real life. They didn't come prepared for the children who were angry and had been angry all their little lives. They weren't prepared to have their own notions about race and class and poverty challenged."

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