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In poor Baltimore neighborhoods, schools pin hopes on infusion of public education money from Annapolis

Educators are determined to provide resources for after-school programs with the help of Kirwan funds. But they face an uphill battle.

After paying for the bare essentials — teacher salaries and textbooks — principal Amanda Rice rarely had more than a few thousand dollars left in her school budget. Providing an environment rich in what middle-class families consider necessities wasn’t possible.

There was no librarian, no music, no art, no after-school tutoring. Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School in Northeast Baltimore had only a part-time nurse and a part-time physical education teacher for its 500 students.

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Basketball was one of the few after-school activities.

Then the first installment of money tied to a state school overhaul arrived this past fall, and Rice could address some of Hazelwood’s shortcomings. The building began to buzz with new activities. Now there’s dance for children who need to move, robotics for those who want to put things together and take them apart. Kids are taking trips to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and playing on intramural sports teams. And a new behavior specialist is working with students, which has helped reduce classroom disruption.

It’s only been six months, but Rice says there’s a new feeling to the building — and reading levels on practice state tests have been improving.

“The kids are changing. They are more responsible. They are making goals for themselves. They are coming to school," Rice said. "My suspension rate is going down.”

As debate in the legislature continues over a bill that would add $4 billion annually to Maryland schools by 2030, much of it from the state, schools like Rice’s are at the center of the proposal. It attempts to balance the scales for students in schools with high concentrations of poverty.

A state commission recommended sweeping changes to raise the level of all Maryland public schools, and to reduce disparities in achievement between poor and wealthy students. The resulting legislation, known by the name of the commission chairman, William “Brit” Kirwan, calls for pouring more money into schools with high numbers of low-income students. It also would increase teacher salaries, raise standards for entry into the profession, offer free prekindergarten to many more families, and invest in career technology programs.

The Kirwan legislation faces stiff opposition from Republicans, including Gov. Larry Hogan, who calls it “reckless and irresponsible.” He says the state can’t afford it. Critics also argue that a boost in state funding in 2002 didn’t lead to better educational outcomes in Baltimore and some other districts, and they say these systems already have enough money to pay for programs routinely found in suburban systems.

Baltimore officials say they’ve used the money to pay teachers some of the highest salaries in the state and to keep schools smaller. That’s necessary, they say, because of the problems many children bring with them to school.

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At Hazelwood, Rice says students come to school hungry, sometimes without coats, and some are homeless. Many are weighed down by living with Baltimore’s violence, tragedy and cruelty. More than 95 percent qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Recently, a mother who appeared to be high begged for money from Rice in the school office.

“They can come to school and be angry, and you don’t know why these children are angry," Rice said. “It could be food. ... Or the parents don’t know how to talk with their children. They are coming with so much baggage and it is not their fault."

Additional money can help with some of that.

Last year, the General Assembly gave all schools a first installment on the Kirwan dollars rather than wait for the full package of legislation up for a vote this year. It gave an additional boost to schools like Hazelwood, with many children from poor families.

Rice has been able to provide her students with a range of support and extras.

She began by paying some of her teachers a $15,000 stipend to work longer hours, making it possible to offer a much wider selection of after-school and Saturday activities. The building is now open until 6 p.m., which means she isn’t sending students home to empty houses to wait for parents to get home from work.

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Besides dance and robotics, there’s now coding, art club, chess club, modeling, debate league and male mentoring through a program called Dare to be Kings. After-school sports include wrestling, lacrosse, kickball and football.

Rice has added four staff members: a full-time nurse, a social worker, a “community school” coordinator to work with families and the behavior specialist.

The majority of students at Hazelwood don’t read at grade level, so Rice also is paying a lead teacher to train colleagues in the best techniques and has invested in an online reading program to help struggling students catch up. She’s also started a personal finance class.

Parents and students have noticed, but want more.

“We should have a separate science class where we do real experiments and stuff instead of just talking about it and watching videos,” said sixth grader Khamya Wellons. "When they be cutting up frogs and stuff, I want to do that.”

Kristina Jones-Wellons, who has several children at Hazelwood, said her children need more organized activities during gym so they can burn off energy and concentrate during class. And she wants to see more art, theater and instrumental music in school.

“Kids deal with so much in their outside life and they spend most of their time in school. I think it should be inviting to them,” she said. “They want to be able to express how they feel in a positive way. ... If you start in elementary school exposing them to the different arts and music, I think the whole focus would be different in high school.”

Beyond spending more money, research has suggested another path to help poor children do better academically: putting them in schools where most kids are from middle-class families. There’s a well-established link between income and school achievement. Research suggests that if more than half of the kids in a school are poor, performance declines among all students. Maryland schools have grown more socioeconomically segregated over the decades.

Several Maryland counties have considered proposals in recent years to address the issue, generally drawing parental uproar. Howard County approved a modified redistricting plan last year. Such plans largely have failed in Baltimore County.

The Kirwan legislation does not involve any redistricting.

Principal Amanda Rice talks with students in the hall at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School Thu., February 13, 2020.
Principal Amanda Rice talks with students in the hall at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School Thu., February 13, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

In West Baltimore, principal Craig Rivers of Frederick Douglass High School says the profound poverty that afflicts so many of his students is overwhelming. Poverty is not just a physical state, he said, but can become a mindset that is difficult to change in a teenager.

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“If they don’t have a coat, you go get them a coat. If they are hungry, you feed them," Rivers said. But he said poverty has been such a part of his kids’ lives that many have come to feel "I don’t have it because I am not deserving of it.”

Rivers is hoping an infusion of money will help transform his school, especially the funds to provide job training and career preparation. He wants to see programs at Douglass that provide students with the skills to earn a livable wage — immediately after high school.

“We are talking about their future, and they are in survival mode," he said.

Rice says that if the Kirwan bill is passed, she would do more than expand the programs she has begun. In her vision, the school becomes the hub of a community, providing services to families seven days a week.

On weekends, parents might come with their children. While they take a workshop on building a resume, searching for a job or buying a home, their kids could get some exercise in organized sports. The family might also have access to a food pantry, used clothing, a washer and dryer, and parenting classes.

But before all that, Rice says, she would finally hire a full-time gym teacher. And a librarian.

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