gwendolynThis being a leap year started me thinking and pondering about leaping forward and what that really means:  leaping (jumping or springing a long way, a forceful jump and/or quick movement). Annually, for nine years, City Neighbors Foundation has hosted the Progressive Education Summit!  It starts with dreaming about what this day could be, look like, feel like, what issues are bubbling to the top around learning, education, teachers, the community, the nation, the needs of children and educators.  This leads us to researching experts and the impactful work of those making a difference that could be shared at the Summit. Then we start to create flows of the day, keeping in mind at the end of the day what we want people to leave experiencing.  This requires giving these ideas space to be changed, reconstructed, deleted, and reformatted. Then we begin to dig into the details: offering opportunities for keynotes, workshop presenters, storytellers, student speakers, master class facilitators, resource fairs, student work, authors, volunteers, and more.  It’s a leap!

Presently, we are fighting for the full funding and implementation of the legislative Kirwan Bill with favorable amendments for students.  This was a dream, then it was created, and now we are in that space between creating and implementation. This is a moment where there could be a huge leap in solidifying the future of children in Maryland.  If Kirwan is approved and fully funded, it could provide early childhood education for all children, high quality and diverse teachers and leaders in education, college and career readiness pathways, more resources to ensure success for all students. And this could have real governance and accountability.  This could make students and families whole and provide a much needed forced leap forward to a successful future with a solid foundation. This is a continuous fight for what our children need and it will not happen naturally. It’s a leap!

Upon reflecting on what it takes before the implementation and taking the big leap of a memorable, impactful day or policy change, there are many small details and moments that take place. A leap year happens every four years, but there are a lot of impactful and meaningful things that happen during the subsequent three years.  This parallels with these events, actions, and milestones that seem so significant. But what happens during the time and years when there are no milestones is just as important, even though it is not as celebrated with intentionality. There is much work that takes place during the dreaming, creating, and implementation phases. There are real sacrifices made.  When most things align there is a leap forward that we will never forget. It’s a leap year!

~Gwendolyn Unoko, Parent and Director of Community Programs at City Neighbors Foundation and City Neighbors High School

careyWhen we speak of progressive education, we often think of thought leaders like John Dewey and his famous book, The School in Society (1899).  Progressive education leaders wrote of and acted upon their beliefs that a democratic, child-centric, experiential approach to learning was best for children as well as society (Reese, 2001).  It is important, however, to avoid becoming stuck in the dogmas of past educational philosophies and keep a critical eye toward needed improvements. If we are to truly live up to the democratic ideals of progressive education, it is perhaps most important that we examine which children were not included in early visions of this educational approach.

John Dewey published The School in Society in 1899.  Less than a decade later, 33 states would pass laws legalizing the involuntary hospitalization and sterilization of individuals with disabilities (Cohen, 2016). As the Progressive Education Association was being established in the US, the US Supreme Court was upholding states’ rights to incarcerate and sterilize disabled individuals (Cohen, 2016).  The surge of progressive education in the early decades of the twentieth century coincided with an international wave of enthusiasm for eugenics – a belief that the ills of society could be cured by removing those with undesirable traits from the gene pool. Rather than see eugenics and discrimination toward individuals with disabilities as incompatible with the progressive movement, many progressives embraced eugenics as a means for improving society (Cohen, 2016; Freeden,1979). Children with disabilities in the US would not be guaranteed access to even minimal education until 1975, over two decades after Dewey’s death.  Dewey never imagined a world in which children with physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities would inhabit the progressive classrooms he sought to create.

Why paint this grim historical image? Because knowing that students with disabilities were not factored into the original imaginings of progressive education provides us with a path toward a greater and improved progressive philosophy and practice. We can stop reading Dewey and his progressive colleagues for hints for creating a truly inclusive school community and start looking to other child-centric models that will help us to provide a meaningful education to all.

It is time for progressive education to welcome a makeover. We must re-examine our approaches to teaching and learning and weed out unnecessary barriers so that all can participate in participatory learning.  The City Neighbors schools have embraced this re-imagining of progressive education.  A commitment to inclusive education and equity for students with disabilities has led to an examination of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an approach to instructional design that embraces student-centric learning experiences and offers access through student-led choice. It has not always been an easy path to blaze.

In order to embrace inclusive education, educators must critically examine ideas about how things “should” be done in order to creatively provide options for all students. There must be a shift in considering the barrier to learning as a within-child problem, to a barrier that is externally caused by instructional choices and the design of learning environments. Progressive educators must keep a sharp eye out for the implicit ableist biases that saturate our culture and profession. What happens when progressive educators are able to intentionally create accessible learning environments, provide meaningful options for student expression, and view student engagement as the key to a deeper relationship with learning? A greater fulfillment of the promises of progressive education; the creation of a more just, democratic, and critical thinking generation.

~Lisa Beth Carey, Assistant Director of The Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education at Kennedy Krieger Institute

Cohen, A. S. (2016). Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, american eugenics, and the sterilization of Carrie Buck. Penguin.
Freeden, M. (1979). Eugenics and progressive thought: a study in ideological affinity. The
historical journal, 22(3), 645-671.
Reese, W. J. (2001). The origins of progressive education. History of education quarterly, 41(1), 1-24.

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


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