The last Thursday in February we were lucky enough to welcome Jimmy Stewart, an organizer with Child First here in Baltimore and co-chair of the Baltimore Education Coalition. Click here to read an interview of his with Greater Homewood Community Corporation, another important organizational force with offices within walking distance of Gilead House.
Jimmy school’d us on the state of Baltimore City School’s buildings and infrastructure, outlining needed improvements and the fight to secure them for Baltimore’s citizenry. Mostly, what we learned was that billion-dollar improvements were necessary to the vitality of Baltimore’s public schools, most of which are saddled with florescent, windowless interiors and lead pipes that render the water undrinkable. The story ends on an optimistic note in that organizers like Jimmy and his coworkers are fighting consistently on behalf of the underrepresented of Baltimore City, where a quarter of the population lives in poverty despite being the largest city in the richest state in America.
Continuing on the theme of education, next week’s bookclub focused on two voices that speak to the state of urban education.
Reign of Error is part scathing analysis of the privatization of public schools, part impassioned plea to politicians and people to implement educational solutions that actually work. Our group discussed privatization–an issue so mired in moral duplicity as to be near invisible to much of us. Are charter schools good? Do they produce results? What do you mean, the teachers don’t have to be certified? How does one make money from public education? Is Waiting for Superman an anxious call for help on behalf of disenfranchised youth or a manipulative propaganda piece designed to accrue support for privatization schemes that profit from our most vulnerable students? Apparently, the answers are simple enough for Diane Ravitch to lay at our feet in this thick analysis rich with sources, graphs, and history. If you’re unsure about charter schools, Teach for America, Race to the Top, standardized testing and the necessity of teacher certification, Reign of Error is a good support for the side of strong, well-subsidized, well-staffed public school system that is not timid in its condemnations or its advocacy.
Buck spoke to us from the other side of the economic spectrum. MK Asante, local author and Morgan State University professor, documents his young life in spurts of lyrical prose and regional dialogue, incorporating both his mother’s diary entries and famed hip-hop lyrics which serve to impart a reverential zeitgeist to the reader. A few from our group saw Asante read from Buck at a local bookstore and knew immediately that it was unique, and important. Though the book is a general memoir of Asante’s young life, his experiences with Philadelphia schools is a constant theme. He reflects on the several expulsions he faced and near the end, his ecstatic embrace of reading and writing after an Alternative School teacher introduces him to the authenticity that can be achieved through written expression. “I realize that school and education don’t go hand in hand, that school and education can be as distant or as close as sex and love,” Asante writes, alerting us to what any student can tell you: regardless of privatization, of standardized testing, of charter schooling, the reality of a student’s life is often so different from the vision of the politician, the educator, the analyst.
Our group got pretty heated about this sort of thing; one of us volunteers at an elementary school; two of us work on site at a school farm; one of us works directly with youth populations and I’m going to be a teacher next year. Anyone who’s ever been a student has an opinion about education. From a personal perspective, I hated high school and when I think about it I get tirelessly angry. From the perspective of a prospective teacher, I hate that there exist populations of underserved students that could have the academic power of Ravitch or the artistic clout of Asante but are restrained by the merciless abuse of poverty. The plight of city schools in Baltimore is a heavy one, but I know at least a couple of us don’t intend to leave, and we’ll never abandon this issue.