Last week, a student asked me where he could purchase AR-500 steel plates.
“Why?” I asked him with my eyebrow raised. I studied his face. He wasn’t joking, he was scared.
“For a bullet proof vest,” he responded. “I have everything but the plates.”
“Are things really that bad where you stay?”
I already knew the answer.
“I need to get the f--- out of Baltimore,” he said, glancing nervously around the room.
Conversations like this happen every day in classrooms across the city. From children who are scared that they “will be the next one on @MurderInk” to kids who beg their family members to send them to stay with a relative out of state, the persistent mood of young adults in this town is terror.
Our city is slaughtering black children.
Last year, Baltimore was declared the most dangerous city in America. Our schools are conducting the business of education in a war zone. We are out manned and out gunned.
How we got here is certainly up for debate. One thing is certain: The school choice system in Baltimore, a product of misguided and dangerous reforms, uses standardized test scores as a gatekeeper. Because trauma cannot be checked at the testing room door, students experiencing it often fail to meet expectations. The result is a tracking system that aggregates trauma in certain nodes of the city.
We see the results. We are halfway through the school year and already three students connected to Frederick Douglass have been killed. I taught two of them (one current, one alumnus). No grief counselors were sent. On Feb. 8th, a student apparently felt so affronted by an experience at the school that a relative tried to kill a staff member.
The violence that breached our school doors is not new. My total number of current and former students killed has reached double digits. Last year, a student was shot eight times and yet managed to survive. He comes to school every day in a wheelchair, with two bullets still inside of him.
If this were happening in white, suburban schools, a state of emergency would already be well underway. Instead, we slash budgets and tell the teachers to just make do.
Our old and dilapidated buildings scream to kids that society sees them as worthless. The paint is peeling and the walls are full of toxic materials. The water is not potable. Anything of value in a classroom, teachers purchase themselves.
The schools are infested with roaches, rats and mice. A significant percentage of children do not eat the free lunch for this very reason.
At Douglass, students take tests on computers that came off the assembly line when George W. Bush was president. When they crash mid-exam, as they often do, students are told to just deal with it.
And yet we are still sold the line that a rigorous, standards-based curriculum is the great leveler that will close the “achievement gap.”
Standards do matter. But, they are totally worthless if children are so exhausted by their efforts to survive that they are basically hyperventilating through each school day.
Imagine learning how to “determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text” (a Common Core required standard for reading literature at the 11th grade) when the night before you held your cousin in your arms as he bled to death. This is not a made-up example. It happened to a student in my 5th period last year.
We seem to lack consistency when it comes to providing a remedy for this crisis. In the six years I have taught at Douglass, I have served under five different principals. In that same time, the city has had four CEOs of schools.
Each new leader brings a succession of new consultants, vendors, assessments and priorities to the mission. When that fails, as it inevitably does, we just fire principals or zero-base teachers.
This can be changed. Our need is great, but our resolve must be greater. The year 2015 taught us how dangerous it is to ignore the problems that hound our city. I will remember for the rest of my life walking my children to the bus stop under the belligerent gaze of M-16-carrying guardsmen posed in front of armored Humvees occupying the strategic high ground around Mondawmin Mall. The message was clear: We will declare states of emergencies to protect property. When people are in crisis, we will continue to do nothing.
Daniel Parsons is an English teacher at Frederick Douglass High School; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.