Pride in Baltimore education accomplishments 'tempered by tremendous urgency'
By Cheryl A. Casciani
Jun 24, 2019 | 10:10 AM
City schools CEO Sonja Santelises talks curriculum changes at Baltimore City Public Schools. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)
This month, as my time on the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners draws to an end, I find myself struck by how much our young people and our schools accomplish every day. In the past few years, Baltimore City Public Schools has taken significant steps in our core area of responsibility: providing students with a high-quality education in safe, supportive environments.
A little more than two years ago, our CEO, Sonja Santelises, introduced a blueprint for success that focuses on literacy as the foundation for learning, well-rounded programs to inspire and support the whole child and leadership from all staff members to contribute to student success. Implementation of a rigorous new curriculum in English language arts has gained national attention, and new curricula and learning units are rolling out or already in place in math, science and social studies. We’re increasing the number of arts teachers, winning awards for gifted and talented education, and extending Advanced Placement courses to all high schools. Last year’s graduation rate saw the largest one-year gain in five years, and 44 of our schools saw gains of 5 or more points on PARCC tests.
In addition, nine school communities have moved into new or renovated buildings that provide the 21st century learning spaces our students need, and the construction of these buildings employed more than 700 city residents. Five more will open next year, and more than a dozen are in different phases of design or construction.
We have stabilized the budget, taking hard steps to close significant gaps and bringing strong stewardship of resources to bear. Far from mismanaging funds, we are maximizing what we have — to such an extent that the first question from a group of industry experts we brought together to advise us on facilities maintenance and operations was “How do you do what you do with so little money?”
Recognizing our role as a public institution in a city with a history of systemic racial inequity, we have developed an equity policy, created tools to evaluate how we are serving neighborhoods of low investment and concentrated poverty, and worked with community partners and advocates to increase recruitment and retention of black teachers.
But my pride at the district’s accomplishments is tempered by a tremendous urgency. One of the biggest lessons from my school board service has been how much more it costs to provide a high-quality education for children growing up in communities of concentrated poverty — the reality for many of our students. When neighborhoods lack grocery stores or safe outdoor places for play and exercise, when families lack access to health care, adequate housing or transportation, when children witness violence and experience trauma, the playing field is not level, and our students don’t come through our school doors ready for success. And while people often say that schools cannot do it all, the reality is that people expect schools to do it all. The reality is also that our students need more than peers in more affluent districts, and our schools have less.
While additional funds may come if the state adopts a new funding formula based on recommendations from the Kirwan Commission, our children — and our city — can’t wait.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has been a champion of city children for his entire public career. He will have the chance to reflect this passion when he prepares the fiscal 2021 city budget. Many City Council members are strong advocates for children and youth, and they consistently press city schools to do more. They are right: We need to do more. They can help us do more by reflecting their passions in the budget. A commitment from Baltimore’s elected officials to increase local education funding would send a strong message to leaders in Annapolis as they debate a new education funding formula.
We have an ally in the new House Speaker Adrienne Jones and a key leadership role with Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh chairing the Appropriations Committee. We need the entire city delegation to make education the clear priority in the next legislative session.
I am proud to have served for the past six years on the Board of School Commissioners, but most of all, I am proud of our students: Their intelligence, creativity, grit, resilience, and passion. They look to adults to make the right decisions to support them, and it is up to each of us to speak up for them.