People who argue that our public schools began dissipating when the complexion of its students got darker and darker may have it right.
Perpetuated by the media, popular opinion seems to paint a picture of inner city schools filled with poor Blacks and Hispanics who are barely functioning or not developing at appropriate pace.
Even the “greatest television drama in the past 20 years”, The Wire, portrayed inner city schools as hapless with too many obstacles to overcome even with mighty assistance from the most well-meaning and knowledgeable of individuals. But it takes more than a couple of individuals to turn the tide against being born into overwhelming disadvantage through no fault of your own. It takes a village as they say – it takes the collective will of an entire community to raise up its most vulnerable and impressionable.
And that’s exactly what is happening in the same gritty neighborhood depicted in The Wire. Across the street from the McCulloh Homes public housing complex (also known as the “Low Rises” lorded over by the Barksdale crew on the show), sits The Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, where the sounds of children laughing and studying, learning and playing echo through the halls well after the final dismissal bell has rung.
Through the quasi-governmental nonprofit Family League of Baltimore City Inc., Baltimore City Public Schools used a community schools strategy to bolster after-school educational activities by awarding grant funding to more than 30 schools that partnered with community organizations to provide coordinated supports to students, their families and the neighborhood before, during and after school.
The Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary, a pre-K-5 school that counts Thurgood Marshall as an alum, uses its partnership with the University of Maryland School of Social Work and Building Educators Leaders for Life (BELL) to provide enrichment activities, including alternating literary and math blocks, homework help, and afternoon and evening meals. Coleridge-Taylor is one of three ExpandED sites in Baltimore, which uses a framework developed by The After-School Corporation (TASC) to give students approximately 35% more learning time during the day.
There’s an open-door policy with parents, several of whom have decided to volunteer. Even one of Coleridge-Taylor’s secretaries volunteers her time after school teaching African dance class to young girls. In a hot gym, a couple of male BELL mentors play NERF football with students, pretending to be Ravens players, of course. Another is giving martial arts lessons.
These are children from a neighborhood with extreme challenges: Nearly 60% of the children in the community live in poverty and nearly 85% of the homes are run by a single parent.
Yet, through Baltimore’s new school strategy, students identified as emotionally-disturbed are selected to participate in the P.R.I.D.E. (Promoting Respect, Integrity, Discipline, and Excellence) where they receive intense behavioral supports and therapy provided by a classroom teacher, a social worker, psychologist, and other staff based on the each student’s individual needs. Lesson plans are crafted by using data shared by organizing staff.
This is a far cry from the Coleridge-Taylor of only two years ago when it had no full-time principal and the only time there were people in the school after dismissal was if someone from the neighborhood broke into it. But thanks to the expanded and enriched learning and opportunities brought together by Baltimore’s community schools strategy, and a new principal who dedicates 12 hours a day and much of his free time on weekends to ensuring his students’ success, these kids are engaged in their school and are starting to thrive. A renovated school building is in the works and community partners are pouring in resources.
But Coleridge-Taylor is the type of school that every parent should want. This is the kind of school support I wish for a young boy my wife and I look after from time to time. He lives in a more affluent, diverse neighborhood in the Baltimore suburbs. His father, a former prominent medical professional, was recently sent to state prison while his mother battles disabilities. His school is either ignorant of his situation or unable to do anything about it. This is a kid – smart as whip – that is able to correct me on the finer details on the War of 1812, but is now losing interest in his class work. I fear that his immense talent is being lost to an educational and political system that is constrained by its own lack of imagination and determination.
Community schools like Coleridge-Taylor are leveling the playing field for children who have no control over the obstacles put before them and who are looking to adults to guide them around those road blocks and toward their dreams.
The time is now for the country’s adults to come together to make sure all our children have an equal opportunity to succeed no matter what circumstance they were born into.