Community involvement key to addressing Baltimore inequities

Baltimore schools' best assets are communities, which are best suited to address the struggles of students.

Baltimore City Public Schools wants to do right by its students. And yet many of our students, our teachers and our administrators are struggling because our schools are in need of so much. In house meetings and individual meetings across the city, we, Baltimoreans for Educational Equity (BEE), have heard stories not only of large class sizes, but also of students with unmet social-emotional needs, teacher evaluations that are unhelpful, learning time being displaced by testing time and a variety of interactions with school police.

Is this what equity looks like in Baltimore City?

At a West Baltimore elementary school, a first-grade teacher moved her desk out of the classroom to make room for her 34 students; her rug is made for 24 students, so each day, 10 students sit on the cold, hard tile. At a South Baltimore high school, a single teacher has a class of 34 students who are learning English as a second language; the 34 students come to school with different native languages, and each student works at a different level of English proficiency.

We know that Baltimore City Public Schools has roughly $15,700 to educate each student; that figure should cover a spot on the rug for six-year-olds and provide effective instruction for English-language learners.

While "transparency" is the buzzword from some city schools' stakeholders, it is equity that gets students' needs met. In order for students' needs to be met, the community must articulate what those needs are — and then the budget must address those needs. On a rainy November night, 45 parents, teachers and concerned community members articulated our needs. We took our stories to the CEO and School Board in order for them to hear the community's voice. And we asked them to put a listing of full-time equivalent positions for central office staff back into the budget.

Each of us who runs a household knows that we have to budget for our largest expenses. Our research on the city school system's budget indicates that its largest expense is salaries. Just as our principals are accountable for their staff salaries, the district administration is accountable for central office staff salaries. When these numbers are visible, communities can understand how the school system prioritizes its spending — and then we can raise our collective voice to make sure that spending addresses community priorities.

Not only did the CEO and school board say yes to making visible full-time equivalent positions for central office in the budget, but they also they stated their desire to work in partnership with BEE on getting community voices into the budget. Baltimoreans for Educational Equity is excited to work in partnership with the school system, and we are excited now to invite you, as an individual or a group, to work in coalition to raise up community voice and to see our priorities realized through changes in the Baltimore City Public Schools' budget.

Baltimore City Public Schools has a budget of $1.34 billion — and still its greatest asset is the community, which is best suited to address the struggles of students, teachers and administrators. Our strength is in the stories of the community. It's in the relationships between neighbors. It's in the voices of our youth. It's in the energy of our teacher and the curiosity of our students. It's in the vision of our principals. It's in the experience of our elders. It's in the love of our families.

Baltimore is divided not by race or by class, but by the people who do not understand the communities, turning away the people who do. From policing to housing, from transportation to schools, the deep inequities in our systems can be undone only by our community members.

Harry Preston and May Amoyaw are public school teachers in West Baltimore, and Kim Smith is a former school teacher; all are members of Baltimoreans for Educational Equity (BEE), a group of teachers, former teachers, parents, students and concerned Baltimoreans who work collectively to achieve educational equity at the district, city, and state level. They may be reached at baltedequity@gmail.com.

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