“Without community, there is no liberation”
— Audrey Lorde
BALTIMORE, MD.—The row houses are a picture of gloom on this rainy day in October 2018 as they glower down the sparsely treed streets of West Baltimore’s Mondawmin area. For decades, these homes, many shuttered and boarded up, have witnessed traumas too many to be told.
Yet this is a neighbourhood that resists. Nearby, a huge graffiti tribute to Freddie Gray — who died in police custody in 2015 — declares its defiance.
“Does anybody hear us pray, for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray,” crooned Prince in a protest song named after the city, following unrest over Gray’s death.
Other encouraging signs of resilience are the city’s inner-city schools.
It ought to be a grim task for neighbourhood schools to nurture and nourish children who come from communities that continue to be traumatized in a state where slavery was legal until 1864, a year after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
A place that according to American President Donald Trump’s ahistorical views is a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
From Jim Crow laws and policies that led to housing discrimination, job discrimination, poverty and criminalization, African Americans have been subjected to centuries of relentless racism, the outcomes of which are painfully apparent in Baltimore.
Yet — despite Trump’s rhetoric — the two elementary schools this reporter visits are anything but grim.
A few minutes’ drive from the shuttered houses in Mondawmin is Robert W. Coleman Elementary School, from pre-kindergarten to Grade 5. The other school, City Springs Elementary School, which goes up to Grade 8, is on the eastern side of town.
They echo with the sounds of shuffling feet and giggling kids and the voices of teachers giving errant kids a talking-to.
“The last time I counted,” says principal Carlillian Thompson at Robert W. Coleman, “we had about 50 families that are homeless.” Another 20 per cent of the 300 students, she reckons, come from low-income backgrounds.
At City Springs, principal Rhonda Richetta describes her 800 students as being African-American — “probably 99 per cent of our students” — many with family household incomes at the poverty level. “The majority of our students live in public housing.”
But the stories within these schools aren’t about rescuing poor Black kids. The stories are about building communities with the school as a hub. They are an example of how policies that bring educators and community partners together can strengthen all communities, but especially struggling ones, and help young people thrive.
The Baltimore City Public Schools system administers about 188 schools that are among the most impoverished in America. In addition, it offers 34 charter schools, which operate similarly to alternative schools in Ontario. In Maryland, charter schools are public, given autonomy over curriculum and community engagement. They are operated by not-for-profit organizations, and the teachers are unionized. Robert W. Coleman and City Springs are charter schools.
The schools identified as having high needs prioritize removing obstacles that prevent children from coming to school, focusing, and believing in themselves.
They invest not only in the students, but their parents and caregivers. For instance, the schools host free workshops on resumé building and how to speak in an interview.
Community co-ordinators tapped into Baltimore’s rich history of organizing and facilitated training for parents to lobby the state for $1.1 billion for renovations and new schools. In 2013, the proposal cleared both houses of the state legislature.
“We want more of our parents to see themselves as leaders in school, in their community and in the city,” says Danista E. Hunte, executive director of Child First Authority, a non-profit partner of the city’s Family League Agency.
Driven by the possibilities, the educators are throwing out the do’s-and-don’ts rulebook and creating new templates.
Robert W. Coleman school has seen the eye-popping outcome of zero suspensions and expulsions for the past five years.
A big part of that zero-suspension rate is the school’s departure from “zero-tolerance” of student misbehaviour. Instead of automatically meting out punishments, staff mediate conflicts to make the wrongdoer accountable.
Students begin their day with 15 minutes of meditation. During the day, disruptive students are sent to a mindfulness room, where an instructor guides them through a meditation session. The door is also open for students who simply want to de-stress.
But it’s not the whole story.
Holistic Foundation, the non-profit that operates Mindful Moment programs in 17 Baltimore schools, is one of 75 community partners at Robert W. Coleman vested in supporting its 300 mostly African-American students.
Key to this success is community school co-ordinator Bertha Knight, whom Thompson describes as “a principal’s dream.”
“If you sit down with her for five minutes and you have any kind of organization or anything that would benefit the school, you’re going to be a partner.”
Knight, 62, a teacher who retired as director of enrichment for Baltimore City Public Schools and is now employed by Child First, arrives at school around 6:30 a.m.
“I arrive so early because children start eating breakfast at 7 o’clock in the morning,” she says.
A federal program that began in 2015 offers free breakfast and lunch every student in the city, regardless of income level.
After assembly and their meditation session, “which sets the tone for the day,” Knight walks through the classrooms, making sure teachers have supplies, checking which students need school uniforms (a community partner donated $18,000 for those uniforms) and who needs clean uniforms. (Another partner donated the washer and dryer.)
“It’s like a temperature check,” she says. She also keeps food bars or snacks on hand for the latecomers. “We try to remove all of the barriers for kids, so they know even if they come late … they have something to eat.”
Every Friday, staff, also mostly African-American, send home bags of energy bars, peanut butter and jams to tide students over the weekend, in case there is no electricity or working stove at home. Every two weeks, bags of with meats and other perishable foods are taken home.
At the end of that schoolday, a 4-year-old comes into the office looking for food. The cafeteria staff has gone. “You hungry, love?” asks assistant principal Tifini Stewart, who goes into the kitchen and fixes him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (The school takes allergy precautions.)
“We don’t say no if anyone comes asking for food,” says Stewart.
Support isn’t a one-way street, not in a community that bears the grim toll of gun violence.
In June 2018, 7-year-old Taylor Hayes, a student at Robert W. Coleman, was riding in the back seat of a Honda Accord when she was struck by a bullet in a drive-by shooting. She died after two weeks.
Baltimore is America’s murder capital, with 56 homicides per 100,000 people in 2017, according to the FBI’s “Crime in the United States” report. It is ranked second-highest for violent crimes after Detroit.
Its schools are often left tending to the impact on the community’s most vulnerable members.
Taylor’s death brought the already tightly knit staff members even closer to each other and to the school community. Fundraisers were held. A small flower garden in the front yard was dedicated to Taylor. Community members helped paint the inside walls of the expansive two-storey brick-and-mortar building. A neighbourhood church painted the walls of the cafeteria with messages such as “Never give up” or “Forgive” and “Laugh.” An eight-metre wall next to the office became a mural in honour of Taylor.
In November, her younger sister, 5-year-old Amy, was shot while walking to a corner store after being caught in a crossfire. She survived.
“Children may have seen a lot of violence in their homes,” Knight says. “They’re angry because Mom is angry, and they don’t get to see Dad. So there’s a lot of anger, a lot of trauma, and so what we try to do is give them a lot of love.”
The absentee and violent Black dad is often used to pathologize Black people, served up as an example of racial and cultural deficiency rather than an outcome of ongoing exclusion and racism.
That racism continues to impact younger generations. A 2016 report by the Economic Policy Institute outlines how children of incarcerated parents are — apart from developing health problems — more likely to drop out of school, develop learning disabilities and misbehave in school.
Children with incarcerated parents are 33 per cent more likely to have speech or language problems like stuttering or stammering, 48 per cent more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and 23 per cent more likely to suffer from developmental delays than otherwise similar children, it says.
Yet there have been no suspensions and expulsions at Robert W. Coleman for five years.
“One thing that we realized about suspensions,” says Thompson, “is you send a child home for a day or two or three days, you haven’t addressed the behaviour.
“That child comes back. Nothing has changed except for the fact that they go home and play their video games or do absolutely nothing. They’re not learning at home, nothing changes. So we took a stance that we were going to do everything humanly possible to keep children in school.”
The students view the school as a safe space, she said. “And at the end of the day, we literally have to say, ‘go home.’ ”
Another thing: unlike in Greater Toronto Area schools, the school has never chosen to call in the police to deal with children who are acting out.
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It’s a sunny day when Ahmad Collick knocks on the door. “It’s Ahmad from City Springs,” he hollers up to the second-floor windows of a city housing unit.
“I identify myself so they don’t think I’m the police,” he said.
Collick is the community co-ordinator at City Springs Elementary School in East Baltimore, situated near Perkins Homes, the city’s largest housing complex. Looking at the soulless, monochromatic brown “projects” with their barred windows, it’s hard to gauge whether urban planners saw social housing as a means of sustenance for the poor or as a sentence for those living there.
A century of federal, state and local policies segregated Baltimore’s Black population into isolated slums, writes American historian Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, an academic specializing in education, race and housing. These policies, he writes, continue today.
Collick is making the rounds, checking on students who have been absent for more than a day. He is at the door of the address listed for a student who hasn’t been seen in a month, a boy now also on the police missing children’s list. The boy’s grandmother lives there.
“What you comin’ knocking around for, like you the po po?” she scolds him. “You nearly gave me a heart attack.” She invites us into her sparsely furnished flat. She doesn’t know where her grandchild is and says she doesn’t have her daughter’s phone number. But she is remembering to take her meds, she says.
It’s clear she’s struggling. She repeats herself frequently and goes off on tangents. She promises to call Collick if she sees her grandson.
Maryland law holds parents responsible for their children’s school attendance, and Collick says it’s likely that this boy’s parents will be taken to truancy court.
Absenteeism is a major problem across schools in Baltimore. One-fifth of the city’s elementary and middle school students missed more than 20 per cent of school in 2016-2017, as did more than half of high school students, according to the Maryland State Report Card.
At the end of the previous academic year, City Springs, which takes students up to Grade 8, was at 90 per cent attendance, Collick says.
But even as he goes looking for absent students or calls parents to find the reasons, he finds that approach reactive and inadequate.
Collick has studied the school’s attendance rates and patterns and found housing instability (people not staying at one address for long) and transportation were major risk factors.
So he tries to get ahead of the problem by building relationships.
He has regular meetings with community partners. Two days before, he asked if a partner was able to donate bus passes for students who have moved and don’t have access to transport yet. Someone has extra — meaning instant, if temporary, relief for Collick.
Students who experience homelessness qualify for free bus transportation.
But when their families are evicted, or are shunted from housing in one part of the city to another, triangulating the information — tracing absenteeism to eviction, finding the new address and linking to the transportation route — can take 10 to 12 days. If they move again, that’s another 10 days, leading to what the board considers “chronic absenteeism.”
During the summer, Collick spent time with families. He found a lot of them didn’t know the kinds of support — and resources — that are available at school. So the school made a resource guide.
He finds ways for parents to have positive interactions with the school rather than just around problems with children. These can be bingo nights, parent breakfasts, parent night with workshops.
Separately, he has familiarized himself with city resources and providers. So when a parent was in distress because she had no electricity, Collick knew to call Energy Assistance, help the parent log in to the school computer and fill the required forms, print them and pay for the ride to the agency. (“Basically, I try to remove all barriers.”)
During the school year, he often sits with students for lunch, or plays games with them. During one conversation, a 12-year-old boy told him he had decided not to sleep anymore. Bullets had ricocheted outside his home the night before and he was worried one would come through a window and hit him.
City Springs now has 60 community partners. It has a full-time social worker, a psychologist and a counsellor. A mental health clinician who works for Johns Hopkins also has an office here. Her entire caseload consists of students from City Springs.
The school itself is impressively appointed. Its most noticeable features are the many shades of the colour purple painted on doors, walls, lockers, posters, even its playground. The colour began as a symbolic gesture by principal Richetta to signify change in the school culture. But it has gone beyond that now. The school even has a slogan about it: “It’s not a colour. It’s an attitude.”
How to measure the impact of all these measures on schools?
“Success to us looks like more students in schools, more students staying in school,” says Jennifer McDowell, director of community schools at Child First.
“We can talk anecdotally about individual students, their shifts from 50 absences a year to 20 or 30 to 10, and what it took to make that happen. But we haven’t had the resources to do a quantitative study on our impacts yet.”
A review of community schools by the California-based Learning Policy Institute found significantly higher attendance rates for Baltimore community schools operating for five or more years, compared to non-community schools.
Transfers out of these schools were also less common than for students at non-community schools, suggesting that community schools are a place where students want to be, the report said. Parents of community school students more often reported that school staff connected them with community resources and were more likely to report that staff cared about their children, compared to parents at other schools.
When evaluating these initiatives, wrote the authors, “patience is key.”
Standardized testing can be an inadequate measure of success.
“There’s a big sort of push and concern that community schools should be able to show academic impacts for students,” says Child First’s Hunte. Since community schools focus on student well-being, the expectation “is false and it sets us up for failure,” she says.
Brilliance denied in one framework of education still finds other ways to shine. At City Springs, a year-end Grade 8 visit to the state Senate in Annapolis showed the students were confident in their identity and able to assert themselves when they came across what they viewed as an injustice.
“When they came back from the Senate they just crowded around me talking all at once,” said Richetta.
“They wanted to know, ‘why were there not more people like us in the Senate?’ ‘Why didn’t they talk about what our ancestors did?’ ’’
Richetta told them, “Well, why don’t we see if you can tell the senator yourselves?” She called up Sen. Bill Ferguson and asked if he could visit. He couldn’t make it before the school year was out. So he visited in the fall of 2018.
That class graduated but they wrote him letters that the new Grade 8’s read out to him. Here is some of what they wrote:
“Dear Senator Ferguson, Do you know what it is like to have the eyes of a slave owner looking down at you in the governor’s house and be asked to look up at their painting with respect? … It felt as if no matter where I went on the tour of the state capital I was met with the eyes of former slave owners but never met with the eyes of my own people. For a black teenage boy like myself, this was something that told me I was in a building that I didn’t belong in.”
“Dear Senator Ferguson, Today on the tour I asked the tour guide a question I thought was simple. ‘Did that man in the painting own slaves?’ Her response is something I will never forget in my lifetime, “I don’t know, I guess they probably did.” She said it with a shrug of her shoulders as if she had never really thought about it before, and didn’t really have any interest to think about it … How could it be possible that something so important to the history of my people could be treated as an afterthought?”
“Dear Senator Ferguson … There was a painting of Frederick Douglass, and a small statue of Harriet Tubman, and that was it. She (the tour guide) was simply pointing out what was there, and we weren’t there. We weren’t there when she talked about how the capital was built. We weren’t there when she talked about how Maryland fought for our freedom. We weren’t there when she talked about how Maryland became Maryland. Were we really not there, or did someone decide to ignore that we were there?”
“Dear Senator Ferguson … Think about how Black people might feel, how women might feel, how Hispanics might feel, how Native Americans might feel. If this tour is supposed to be about (our) state, it should be about our entire state, not just white men.”
“At the end of it,” said Richetta, “he told me, ‘You know what? They’re right. As a white man, I had never seen the Senate through their eyes.”
Education Without Oppression — the 2018-19 Atkinson series — examines the continuing marginalization of Black and Indigenous students in Canada. It analyzes the challenges and breakthroughs nationally and in the cities of Baltimore, Md.; Lucknow, India; and Napier, New Zealand.
The Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy awards a seasoned Canadian journalist the opportunity to pursue a yearlong investigation into a current policy issue. The project is funded by the Atkinson Foundation, the Honderich family and the Toronto Star.