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Bringing back Baltimore one student at a time

After knocking on 36,000 doors, the Baltimore teachers Union and other advocates brought 17 dropouts back to school and enrolled children in pre-K.

In challenging times, we must always acknowledge the power of utilizing the voices around us. That's when our Baltimore community came together — students, parents, educators, religious leaders, community groups and city leaders — to fight for our public schools.

Faced with a $130 million budget deficit in January and projected layoffs of 1,000 teachers and other school-related personnel, we all knew the children of Baltimore were in imminent danger of losing the resources needed to learn and the teachers and support staff to teach them. Through rallies in Annapolis and individual meetings with legislators and the governor, we secured nearly $60 million in funds to bring our school management crisis under control.

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During this time, the Baltimore Teachers Union found out about the stark enrollment challenges facing the school system. When public school enrollment takes a dive, so does school funding. Each time a student leaves BCPS, the school system loses more than $11,000. So, we began asking ourselves how to tackle the enrollment problem — together. As educators of Baltimore's future leaders, we needed to understand where our students were, why they were choosing to not attend our schools and where they had gone.

To get these answers, we decided to hit the streets. Not as security guards or neighborhood watchers but as educators committed to seeing Baltimore children thrive. We brought together key community partners from across the city (including the American Federation of Teachers, the mayor's office, McDonald's and FirstBook) for a collaborative, innovative program to address the school system's enrollment issue by directly engaging the community — in their neighborhoods and at their doorsteps — to drive public school enrollment. And thus, the Baltimore Schools for Baltimore Students (B3) program was born. Our mission: bringing back Baltimore one student at a time.

A group of 40 teachers and other school-related staff — carefully chosen through an interview process — were trained as B3 advocates and tasked with canvassing targeted neighborhoods to speak with families about enrolling or re-enrolling their children into Baltimore Public Schools. They knocked on more than 36,000 doors and held more than 6,200 conversations for a contact rate of 17 percent — higher rates than that of many political campaigns. Their results were nothing short of amazing, with 329 new students enrolled in pre-K and 17 former drop-outs now re-enrolled.

The work of our advocates cuts a previously projected enrollment shortage for the school system by a third.

Not only are the B3 advocates dedicated to positive growth in our public schools, they're proactive toward achieving goals and passionate in supporting our leaders of tomorrow. They willingly sacrificed their summer vacations to spend long hours, oftentimes in scorching heat, knocking on doors throughout communities to speak with families about the many public education opportunities available for their children. That means forfeiting family outings, road trips and personal relaxation to work toward curbing an enrollment shortfall.

Whether greeted with smiles or opposition, the advocates started each conversation just as enthused as the first. That's because serving as a B3 advocate is more than a task — it's a responsibility to be at the forefront of progress. Instead of resting in the hours ahead of neighborhood canvassing, many of our advocates were teaching summer school. Others were balancing their commitment to the children and families of Baltimore with the reality of recently being laid-off by the school system. The 40 advocates are undeniably the rock of the B3 program. Their ability to brave constantly changing weather and sometimes unpredictable neighborhoods is truly a testament to their resilience and the key to their success.

But our work doesn't end now. As we prepare to begin another school year, we must make practical use of this forward momentum. Just as we added more than 340 students to the school system during an enrollment and budget dilemma, we'll continue creating fresh, community-oriented initiatives to finally begin a new chapter for Baltimore's public school system.

Marietta English is president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. She can be reached at president@baltu.org.

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