Archives for category: Education Reform

John Henderson Photo (2)One of the most significant throughlines that have been central to me throughout my time in Baltimore is its public education system. I thought about it long before I had kids. It has predominated in my thinking because of what public education promises–equity, fairness, and community engagement. That is at odds with what public education in our city so often provides. The racial and economic inequities which were at the heart of our city’s creation are thriving today; they are nowhere more visible than in our schools. 

One of the stories my family tells about itself is its preoccupation with education and the capacity for education to expand your opportunities. I grew up in a predominantly African American town in rural Alabama, where, at least to my experiences, the public school education was regimented, woefully underfunded, and at best an afterthought in the state legislature’s mind.

I remember that the section in our history books on the massacre and removal of Native Americans in Alabama was at best a paragraph, which is odd given that many of the city names, names of bodies of water, and indeed the name of the state are of Choctaw origin. The section on slavery was perhaps no more than a page, which would be fair if one determined that neither economics, history, sociology, nor state politics were important enough to make their way into the history book. 

But at least the people there were clear-eyed about racism and economic inequity which were the sources of their problems with regard to education. They were also clear-eyed about the solution: a significant financial investments in public schools. 

Later, when I came to Montgomery County, Maryland as a teenager, the teachers and students spoke derisively about the south, about its backwards educational system, and (without much coded language) their low expectations for me as an Black child. I suspect they were not aware of the racism and lack of introspection that informed those judgments. I recall them speaking just as poorly about the kids in Baltimore, for similar reasons. Perhaps they just weren’t aware that schools are primarily funded through local property taxes, and that those taxes bake in the inequities across generations. They were also likely unaware that Maryland is the northernmost southern state. 

My daughters go to City Neighbors Hamilton. One of my proudest moments as a father was looking at a map at the school that shows what part of the city the kids come from, and hearing about the school’s including all of those stories into a narrative about what it means to be a Baltimorean, a Marylander, and an American. The lived experiences of kids from Highlandtown are different than those from Sandtown, or Waverly, or Oldtown, or Guilford. 

Recently, I became the ACLU of Maryland’s Board President. One of the things I am proudest of on behalf of the organization is its work to push for equitably funding Baltimore city schools through the Bradford litigation, and its mobilization efforts to equitably fund all schools throughout the state through its work on the Kirwan commission. I am equally enthusiastic to support the Kirwan formula through the City Neighbors Foundation’s advocacy work. 

I also have served as the Treasurer for City Neighbors Hamilton for a few years, so, unsurprisingly, I guess, I spend a lot of time looking at City Neighbors Hamilton’s budget. Each month we look at the financials, and each year, we fret about whether we can meet the needs of the kids with the money we’re allotted. That is important work, but in a more profound sense, it is an annual process of papering over the problems that have resulted from our collective failure to properly fund our schools. I hope you will consider joining with me and the Foundation’s advocacy team in an effort to make the legislature and the governorship live up to its obligations for our children. 

~John Henderson, Parent & Board Member, City Neighbors Hamilton

robertsWhile serving in the Army, Dr. R. Adams Cowley, affectionately known as the father of trauma medicine and founder of Shock Trauma, coined the term “golden hour” to describe a crucial period of time. He observed that many traumatic injuries could be stabilized if the patient could be transported to a military hospital where a surgeon was present within one hour of the initial injury.

As I wrapped my brain around this concept during a tour of University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center, I could not help but to question myself: In my day-to-day life, how can I help someone during their golden hour?

Last August, I applied to be considered for a Baltimore City School Board Commissioner. In that moment, I chose to be intentional and show up during the golden hours of some of the district’s most vulnerable families. Combining my lived experiences and professional skill sets, I realized that I could potentially help shape the educational trajectories of 80,000 Baltimore City Public School students.  Like the clients I serve every day, I choose to show up for the next generation of Baltimore. In these times, they are often unaware that they are in a crucial period of time in their lives–their golden hour, and I am choosing to model the same thinking as Dr. Cowley.

Over the course of my life, I learned various examples of disabling practices that cause trauma to people by way of “redlining,” inequitable community funding models, and many occasions were groups of people were discriminated against for race, religion, or some other unique identifying characteristic.  Major trauma has the potential to leave long-term disabilities or even cause untimely death.

Now, just so we are clear, these traumatic injuries may not come by way of a motor vehicle collision or with a weapon.  Perhaps it may be a person or family representative of the United Way’s Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed Report. Perhaps it is a new participant in the Center for Urban Families’ “Strive” program, or even a youth attending a local mentorship program. There are families within every neighborhood, community, and jurisdiction that–at any time–can and perhaps will experience a severe traumatic injury and will be in need of a City Neighbors version of Dr. Cowley.

To my City Neighbors family, I challenge you and I need you to, in your personal and professional lives, help someone during their golden hour. Thank you.

~Shantell Roberts, Parent, City Neighbors Hamilton


pendredI can’t help but think back to being a tiny child and hearing all kinds of stories. I remember being told that everyone is different, and that was a good thing.  Later on in my teaching career, I began to think that that idea was just lip service. The world didn’t want different. “Different” meant chaos. “Different” couldn’t be standardized.  I came to see that MY world, the world of education, didn’t like “different,” but the REAL world, the one where things ebb and flow, that was where “different” was king. But different from what?  If we are all a little different, is there really a “normal” to compare to? 

As teachers-in-training, we learn to plan for student deficits.  Where are the gaps? What don’t they know? Where are the weaknesses?  We are taught to locate where students aren’t fitting into our system and push and prod them until they do.  This model is exhausting and ineffective for so many individuals. It’s an impossible task for both teachers and students.  How can you think the way we ask you to if your brain just doesn’t think that way? How are so many successful people bad at school?

Last year, I began working to understand Universal Design for Learning with a consultant from Kennedy Krieger, Lisa Carey.  UDL is a way of thinking about teaching and learning. It provides teachers with the idea that, if given an access point, all students can engage with the material.  The framework originated in architecture and the idea that if a building is built with stairs, it must be retrofitted with an accessibility ramp. If the architect had started with the ramp to begin with, the building would be accessible to all without retrofitting.  Planful accessibility.

Lisa helped me explore ways to make everything accessible.  What if, during planning, we looked for barriers to learning?  We explored ways that my lessons, classroom, and material could be made available to all.  With many access points, engaging material, and various ways to represent learning, all of my students could be successful.  Students could share their understanding through strength-based performances like sketching or painting. Proof of learning is proof of learning. We don’t all access material the same way and we don’t all prove learning in the same way.

This study of UDL required a certain understanding of supports.  The term “support” has historically represented any accommodation given to a student with an IEP, 504, or Behavior Plan.  Students have plans to gain access to graphic organizers or timers or speech-to-text. Exploring UDL challenged my unconscious belief that these systems could only be given to students who were qualified to have them.  Why not give everyone the option to use a graphic organizer? Why can’t everyone have a timer if it helps them? All adults have access to alarms, even if they naturally wake up early.

This idea really hit home when I sat down in front of my own television.  For as long as I can remember, my husband has had the closed captioning on in our home. He initially put it on because watching television and eating noisy snacks was causing him to miss out on important plot points. I am a person who has difficulty hearing, and realized that this support was intended for someone who was deaf or hearing impaired.  My husband, who hears perfectly well, and I were benefiting from a support unintended for us. It is a support that has saved me from having to ask what that person just said or what happened. Let’s face it, a support that saved a marriage!

My colleague, Kim Spears, and I presented with Lisa Carey at the CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) conference last summer.  This conference is focused on all aspects of UDL. As the conference wrapped up, Kim and I found ourselves lying on the floor in the hallway of a building on Harvard’s Law campus musing about our recent realizations.  What if there is no “different”? What if it’s all about variability. If I recognize the variability in you, like your preference for digital note-taking, can you recognize the variability in me, like my need to take dramatically colorful and artistic styled notes?  If so, can we recognize it in our students? Can we let the student who has deep scientific knowledge prove it through scientific drawings and dictated speeches if their spelling skills are not yet solidified? Can we offer varied reading levels of the same topic so the student who doesn’t yet read on grade level can still participate in the conversations?  I think we need to. The world can’t handle anymore “same” or “different”. The world is ready for a little variability. 

~Tracy Pendred,  4/5 Math & Science Teacher, City Neighbors Charter School



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