Baltimore schools need a culture shift, residents say [Commentary]

As Baltimore City Public Schools began searching last year for a new leader, the Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit working to secure resources needed to improve student achievement in the city schools, recognized that we knew very little about how community members viewed the major educational reforms that had taken place over the previous six years when Andrés Alonso was at the helm.

We believe strongly that the public schools of Baltimore City have a clear and immediate impact on everyone who lives and works in the Baltimore area, whether or not they have children in our schools. And their views about and hopes for city schools are critically important. With that in mind, we undertook a comprehensive, citywide listening campaign to engage the community — in all its diversity — in defining priorities for our public schools. The results are being released today in a report entitled City Speaks: Community Voices on Baltimore Schools, available online at ffee.org.

From Madison/East to Highlandtown, Mt. Washington to Cherry Hill, more than 100 trained volunteers led 63 "kitchen-table" conversations with between eight and 12 people. These group conversations were supplemented with one-on-one interviews and an online survey. All told, 859 individuals from 55 neighborhoods across Baltimore took part to discuss their vision for city schools.

We heard our community offer keen insights about the challenges facing our schools and learned that participants clearly see the connection between the quality of public education and the health of our city. Most importantly, our participants, who spoke energetically and with passion, demonstrated a deep commitment to students and a strong desire to play a meaningful role in efforts to improve education in Baltimore City.

As we analyzed these conversations, we discovered some universal themes. Overall, what we heard most, regardless of income, race or neighborhood, was participants voicing a strong desire for a more welcoming and inclusive school environment for students, teachers, families and community members. To accomplish this, the city school system will need to undertake a district-wide cultural shift toward more open, responsive interactions with families and community members as a critical first step for tackling the issues that face our public schools.

Participants identified other priorities as well. They call for a renewed focus on teacher hiring, retention and professional development, including cultural competency.

They also want the schools to assess the quality of our K-12 education by how well our students are prepared for what happens to them after high school graduation.

And participants clearly want city students to have better academic options during the school day along with more after-school programming and summer opportunities.

Finally, we heard repeatedly that Baltimoreans believe that parents and community members becoming more active supporters of schools is an important step in demanding more from our public education system.

So often, those of us who work in education reform say that we need community commitment to improve education outcomes. What we clearly heard in our conversations is that the community agrees, understands the issues and is ready and willing to play a role. What they are looking for is a pathway to getting involved and becoming engaged in the process.

No doubt, it will take a concerted effort to move this desire to action and ultimately results. We have begun by sharing the results of our listening campaign with Gregory Thornton, the Baltimore City Public Schools' new CEO; elected leaders and a variety of community and foundation organizations and stakeholders.

We are optimistic that our report will help create a roadmap for Mr. Thornton and our city schools. We also hope that it will serve as a beacon to all of us involved with our schools that we should do more to actively welcome and collaborate with communities to tackle our many educational challenges. To that end, we invite you to keep the conversation going on Twitter at #cityspeaks.

Roger Schulman is president and chief executive officer of the Fund for Educational Excellence. His email is RogerS@ffee.org.

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