How can we make school feel “normal” for our students when everything else is constantly changing? The answer is we don’t.
In late July, Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) CEO Sonja Santelises announced the delay of in-person teaching until October 16. This decision was made out of well-informed safety considerations. However, the sudden transition into virtual learning last spring illuminated challenges —for both students and parents — with how education that is typically done in-person translates at home.
But they are challenges that, if approached from multiple angles, can fundamentally reshape what education looks like in Baltimore City. As reopening plans continue to unfold, we call on the district to collaborate intentionally with the many grassroots organizations in Baltimore that share this vision and are ready to serve:
Baltimore is home to an abundance of passionate grassroots leaders, many of whom are also proud parents to BCPS students and whose lifework centers education and youth development. While current engagement mechanisms do take their voices into account, they place less emphasis on their creative leadership in supporting the school system to adapt in this moment.
And like BCPS, these grassroots leaders care first and foremost about the development and wellbeing of Baltimore’s students and families. Their organizations were often founded on a need to supplement — sometimes even spearhead —solutions that ultimately raise the quality of education in Baltimore. For instance, former educator Kevin Anderson founded NEWFIT to ensure accessible wellness and athletic programming for Baltimore City youth.
They are acutely aware of what offerings could diversify and enrich students’ educational experience. Rather than only focusing on reopening our school buildings, let’s work toward an expanded plan in partnership with these grassroots leaders to reimagine education and more holistically serve our city’s students moving forward.
At Impact Hub Baltimore, a community and coworking space for Baltimore’s social entrepreneurs, we are fortunate to witness firsthand their ongoing commitment to the city’s students and families. If you ever visited the space pre-pandemic, chances are you ran into CHARM Lit Mag’s student editorial board meeting in the conference room, or perhaps Dewmore Baltimore’s high schoolers preparing for their SaltPepperKetchup Youth Open Mic.
We see how they help students broaden their understanding of themselves and education beyond the classroom. And we know that there are many more organizations across Baltimore similarly committed to empowering students in expanding their horizons. In turn, the youth become motivated to ensure their peers also win.
I recently asked several organizations within our network to weigh in on the upcoming school year. Organizations like Teachers’ Democracy Project, NEWFIT, Dewmore Baltimore, Lydia’s House, I Am MENtality, and Dent Education all support the delay of a hybrid learning option with student wellbeing as the top priority.
Reiterating the importance of student safety, Lolita Sheppard of Lydia’s House hopes the district will delay in-person learning until spring 2021. Olu Butterfly Woods of Dewmore Baltimore calls on the district to ensure students are “active participants and decision-makers” as planning unfolds. And I Am MENtality’s Tiaira Robinson highlighted the importance of accountability, saying “We hope that the district holds all their school leaders accountable so that every student receives rigorous education that is equitable for all.”
Rebecca Yenawine of Teachers’ Democracy Project emphasized the need for flexibility and innovation.
“Parents are trying to work and oversee their children’s learning, children are missing friends and support systems,” she said. “We have to take this time to look very differently at what young people need.”
Dent Education’s Rajan Patel also echoed the sentiment on innovation in that process.
“We have an opportunity to revisit the role of education and design it to become more forward-thinking,” he said. “How can we approach [reopening plans] in a way that pushes for equity at the same time?”
Now more than ever, this moment calls for the district to engage with and learn from community leaders that operate with a youth-first and equity-centered mindset. These organizations bring a critical sense of community accountability, trusted relationships, as well as creativity and flexibility that could dramatically enhance the school system’s capacity to uplift all our students.
And the capacity of education and youth-focused organizations to support their students is intrinsically intertwined with any decision the district makes. With NEWFIT being a school-based provider of wellness and programming, Kevin Anderson shares that “COVID-19 made it extremely difficult to plan for how to best serve our school communities.” Still, they remain just as committed to supporting and empowering our city’s students. But they can only adapt as far as their financial resources allow.
The district has an expansive network of committed leaders and youth proactively seeking to support during this time. This is a critical opportunity to deploy all of our assets, to combine our city’s brilliant minds and creative leadership. Some may say that too many voices might complicate the process, but I believe they will only strengthen our collective capacity to redesign education from all angles.
To underutilize our assets would mean a wasted opportunity to enhance Baltimore City’s school system not only with present COVID-19 concerns in mind, but also for real systemic change in the future.-30-
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