The resilience of Baltimore City schoolchildren

Last year was a tough time to be a student in Baltimore City’s public schools. It wasn’t just the usual indignities like large class sizes and water fountains from which you can’t drink, or even another flare-up of the budget crises that have hit the system with alarming regularity. Last year, Baltimore schools made national news when, during a painfully cold winter, the boilers failed, pipes burst and the heat went out at scores of schools, forcing kids to huddle together in winter coats and hats and eventually to stay home altogether. The impact of that crisis threatened to go far beyond whatever instructional time was lost. It also sent a message to Baltimore’s children that they were at best overlooked and at worst a pawn in political games between adults.

That’s why it was so heartening this week to see the results of last year’s standardized student achievement tests. At a time when scores on the PARCC exam went up slightly statewide, Baltimore City students led the region in their gains. It’s no cause for celebration — Baltimore City schools’ pass rates for English and math are still about half those in Baltimore County and a third of those in the region’s top-performing districts. But the gains — 2.5 percentage points in English and 1.7 points in math, with substantial numbers of schools posting gains of 5 points or more in one or both subjects — are cause for optimism.

In an interview this week with The Sun’s editorial board, city schools CEO Sonja Santelises pointed to many factors that contributed to the gains, including a strong emphasis on improved writing instruction, the development of strong community schools that pair academics with social support, better curriculum and so on. But as much as we pay attention to the macro-level management of Baltimore’s schools, the real credit has to go to the thousands of individuals — principals, teachers, parents and especially the students themselves — who made these improvements possible.

“It speaks to resilience,” Ms. Santelises said. “We have some of the most resilient young people I’ve ever seen.”

Maryland is about to engage in a debate about whether to increase the amount of money it sends to districts with high rates of poverty based on the work of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, better known as the Kirwan Commission. If past debates in Annapolis about school funding are any guide, opponents will argue that providing more funds for Baltimore schools is throwing good money after bad, that the district can't manage what it has and that sending more won’t help its students achieve. But let them look at what happened last year. Baltimore’s students showed remarkable gains in academic performance at a time when so much was going wrong. What could could they accomplish if we truly gave them what it takes to succeed?

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