Pointless Silos or Will Rebuilding Baltimore City Schools Mean Shutting Some Down?

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Two movements are promising to rock the foundations of public education in Baltimore. One is the Transform Baltimore campaign, which is drumming up the political will to finance $2.8 billion for renovation and construction of Baltimore City Public Schools buildings. The other is BCPS CEO Dr. Andrés Alonso’s plan to shutter at least a dozen schools by 2014 — because their buildings are crumbling.

The two movements don’t appear to be operating in concert. Transform Baltimore’s $2.8 billion figure is taken from a report put out in June 2010 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland’s Education Reform Project. Authored by Frank Patinella and Bebe Verdery and funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Buildings for Academic Excellence: A Vision and Options to Address Deficient School Facilities in Baltimore City” thanks CEO Dr. Andrés Alonso for answering questions. But the collaboration seems to have ended there.

According to Erica L. Green’s reporting in The Baltimore Sun, BCPS will release the first draft of its own assessment — a $135,000 independent study — this month. That objective report will ground the CEO’s decisions about which schools are beyond repair. (The schools to be closed for failing by other measures — such as test scores — are not included in the dozen or more figures cited above.)

Edweek just published an article on the effects of school closures on district budgets and academic performance. (To sum up: They don’t help budgets much, nor do they hurt student performance as much as you’d think.) The article also touches on the pitfalls districts should avoid — namely, political fallout due to a breach of public trust. (Adrian Fenty’s fate as mayor of Washington, D.C. — the mayor who appointed schools chancellor Michelle Rhee — is a case in point.)

It seems hugely important, at least to me, that thinking about improving schools and thinking about improving neighborhoods happen together. Some community organizations are already doing that. But these efforts are doomed to fail if Baltimore City Public Schools, the Baltimore City Planning Office, and Baltimore’s many nonprofit organizations, however consolidated, operate as self-contained silos.

Dr. Alonso has an opportunity to model systems thinking for a generation of Baltimore City Public School students. He can be the CEO who worked with local nonprofit organizations, community groups, and city planners to set an urban public school system on a better course. Or he can be the superintendent who closed a bunch of schools because an independent study gave him permission.

Some Questions:

Should Baltimore City Public Schools’ efforts to address failing infrastructure operate in tandem with Transform Baltimore’s efforts? Why? Why not?

Might BCPS challenge itself to think in interdisciplinary ways about how to “right-size the district”? For example, rather than rely on one report by an independent assessment team, could BCPS enlist geography, urban planning, and urban studies teams from Baltimore-based colleges and universities to work on solving systemic issues of poor attendance, high attrition, and low enrollment alongside BCPS?

In the same interdisciplinary vein: Has Transform Baltimore — the nonprofit consortium spearheaded by the ACLU-MD — considered joining up with TransForm Baltimore – The Zoning Code Rewrite – which is a project of the Baltimore City Planning Office (and currently accepting public comments on its first draft)?

Additional source + recommended reading here.

Edit Barry writes the blog Re:education in Baltimore — this post is original to Baltimore Fishbowl. Find her on [email protected]



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3 COMMENTS

  1. Alas, the link does not seem to take me to helpful reading about the situation – rather to a Sunpapers article which cites fifth graders complaining about a lack of air conditioning. Despite their assumption, the U. S. Constitution does not forbid such conditions, even for convicted prisoners. In fact, I am at a loss to recall any provision in the U. S. Constitution mentioning public schools at all.

    Most states, including Maryland, do have a provision calling for some level of public schooling. This was intended to assure a citizenry which could read the paper and who knew enough civics to follow voting instructions. Of late we have tacked on not just algebra and Shakespeare, but phys. ed. and art appreciation.

    If the Fishbowl can convince the BCPS to join forces with any funding agency in order to improve the physical plant at schools, and make it more reasonable for the city’s students to become capable, literal participants in the local govenment, I say go for it! It will be difficult to overcome the trend of expecting the schools to perform, not just in loco parentis but instead of parents – to teach manners and provide meals and clothing and life advice. Really, we should expect the public schools to teach reading skills, simple math skills and civics. Somewhere, it seems we have dropped the civics and transmogrified the actual real simple skills into some weird standardized test skills. An ability to decipher word analogies is not the same as genuine communication ability.
    Of course, as long as we put more value on test scores than our teachers’ abilities to recognize and foster growth in the students, I think we are continuing the problem.

  2. The 3rd movement that you forgot to discuss is the less visible, almost stealthy one led by our Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who with Dr. Alonso commissioned a school construction task force on Nov. 22, 2010. The yet to be released task force report has been referred to on numerous ocassions by the mayor’s spokesman and the mayor as being instrumental in identifying new revenue sources for school construction and other related matters. The more puzzling aspect of this issue is why our mayor has NOT endorsed Dr. Alonso’s proposal or the ACLU proposal nor has she presented her own to FIX our schools for US to review. Seems this is one of those “tough choices” she talks about, that she is absolutely unwilling to make.

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