Unearthing Baltimore's hidden potential

It is difficult to understand how our government has become so disjointed from the needs of the emerging majority and chronically underserved, particularly when education reform has been a hallmark issue at the forefront of most modern political campaigns, both national and local. Yet, despite the promises made on the trail and passionate grassroots efforts, public education systems throughout the country remain broken — including in Baltimore.

This year, the Baltimore City Public Schools system struggled to close an ever-present budget deficit, which ballooned to $130 million. A recent reports shows that 13 of 39 high schools have zero students who met grade level proficiency in math, and another six schools had only 1 percent of their students test “proficient.” The same report found that nine of 10 black male students are not reading at their grade level.

While these staggering statistics are always devastating to read, they are not news. Baltimore has a long and complicated history when it comes to providing quality education for all residents.

We have a multiple generations of undereducated citizens who are ill-equipped to compete for higher paying, professional roles. This is not because they lack the intellect or drive, but because of a systematic failure to provide quality education to children and families. Beyond potential new jobs, Baltimore students are graduating without the foundational skills that would allow them to be competitive in college, trade schools and the workforce. As physician and former astronaut Mae Jemison remarked at a recent Executive Alliance luncheon, “Math and science aren’t just about becoming a scientist or astronaut. All kids need to be proficient in both subjects to be competitive in all types of careers. You want your hairdresser to be able to calculate pH, don’t you?”

Dr. Jemison’s remarks continue to resonate with me. As a nonprofit leader in the Baltimore out-of-school- time space, I bear witness to the birth of our students’ dreams each day. These dreams aren’t made of cotton candy and fairy dust. Our scholars have dreams of becoming lawyers, doctors, politicians, artists, community organizers and so on. You name it, and we have a middle school student striving for it. Seventh-grader Mark refers to himself as BHP — “Baltimore’s Hidden Potential.” At 12, he recognizes that people look at him and make assumptions. He knows that they expect him to stereotypically say he wants to be a football player. But while he does want to play college football, Mark actually wants to become a Navy SEAL. He wants to serve his country and “do top secret things that require hard work and discipline,” as he puts it. He has the will and the intellect to reach that goal but how does the education system support him in gaining the foundational skills necessary to get to the next step?

Granted, it is no secret that education is just one of the many issues plaguing Baltimore residents. Yet, it is a core element in solving a multitude of compounding societal ills. There is no issue that will get better without growing a generation of new leaders within our school walls.

I am committed to advancing a mission and vision aimed at ensuring that all Baltimore students are equipped to not only survive but thrive in our public school systems. I implore Baltimore residents and supporters to do the same by joining advocacy efforts and holding city government accountable for meeting the basic educational needs of our community. Together, we can unearth Baltimore’s hidden potential.

Traci Callender is executive director of Higher Achievement; her email is tcallender@higherachievement.org.

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