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Urban teachers don’t get summers off

A resident of six years, Crystal Lawson will pack tonight since the water pressure has not recovered sufficiently at Baltimore’s Poe Homes.

What does summer mean to you? Trips to the ocean, outdoor activities with your children or grandchildren, relaxing by the pool? As an urban educator, I look forward to extended time to rejuvenate and grow professionally through summer learning opportunities. Still, summertime brings mixed feelings for me. As a teacher, I cannot help but see summer through the lens of some of my most vulnerable students.

While I may attend food festivals with my family, I know some of my students will wonder who will provide their next meal. While I enjoy my air conditioning on a hot and humid afternoon, I know that many of my students roast in homes lacking central air, triggering asthma attacks and other ailments resulting from overheating.

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As a teacher, I am responsible for molding and shaping the minds and lives of my students from September to June. But for those months in between, I have little control over their condition — and it breaks my heart.

With the recent news involving the Poe Homes community going without water for an extended period of time and the closing of public pools because of a water main break, and Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to not release funds for school construction and youth jobs, it is clear that we are failing our city’s youth, specifically those in our black communities.

Our investment in Baltimore's youth cannot and should not stop when the school year comes to a close. Every summer, the surrounding counties overflow with an abundance of well-funded recreation centers, summer sports leagues, educational programs, and safe spaces for kids to be kids. But our students have limited access to summer activities due to a lack of investment in their communities, failing infrastructure, and unreliable transportation, much of which is a result of historical systemic racism.

Baltimore City has worked to expand its summer meals program so our youth have access to at least two meals a day, and nonprofits around the city have invested in establishing job training programs for our teens. However, we still have a long way to go.

In Baltimore City, 31.3% of kids live below the poverty line. That’s nearly 40,000 children. Providing recreational activities for these children and youth is vital to their growth and development. A paper in the journal Pediatrics demonstrated that when play and recreation are missing from a child’s life, “toxic stress can disrupt the development of executive function and the learning of prosocial behavior.” The researchers also found that “in the presence of childhood adversity, play becomes even more important.”

For 14 years, I lived in a neighborhood without a library or a major grocery store - it is what many would consider a neglected part of city. Summer emphasizes that neglect and lack of resources, especially for children and youth, because more hours are spent at home.

That is why six years ago, I gathered neighbors, friend, and church members in our little corner of Baltimore to establish a day camp that served 40 kids. The demand was so high that we had to limit the number of families we accepted. We planned sports activities, academic enrichment opportunities, dance and drama instruction, science experiments and reading time.

Laura Blood, left, talks with her daughter Lana Blood, 5, as she has lunch at the Arbutus branch of the Baltimore county public library. They live in Arbutus. The Arbutus branch is one of the library branches that are supplying free lunches to children this summer.
Laura Blood, left, talks with her daughter Lana Blood, 5, as she has lunch at the Arbutus branch of the Baltimore county public library. They live in Arbutus. The Arbutus branch is one of the library branches that are supplying free lunches to children this summer. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

We assumed an “assets-based” mentality, focusing on the available resources we had, and recruited local college student volunteers to fill in the gaps. We took our disparity and transformed it into an opportunity for growth and vitality. I know other communities throughout the city have accomplished the same thing. Neighborhood leaders have worked to expand recreation center programming and have turned their schools into enrichment centers.

While the inequalities and disparities our children face each day are unjust, we recognize that we cannot stand by and wait for our city government or institutions to make a change. We are continuing to hold our leaders accountable to re-write a legacy of institutional injustice, but we are taking meaningful action, too.

So, what does summer mean to an urban educator like me? It means my work is never finished. This summer, I will participate in over 200 hours of professional development to strengthen my instruction to become a more effective teacher for my students. Even when I am not attending parent conferences and grading papers, I am fighting for my students. I hope you will join me in fighting for them too.

Eboni Zook is a teacher at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, and a graduate student in the Curriculum and Instruction program at Loyola University Maryland. She can be reached at eazook@loyola.edu.

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