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The Baltimore neighborhood that was the focus of protests after Freddie Gray’s death exists in every major city in this country. Too often such neighborhoods were once places where families could graduate from high school and get decent jobs. Schools had decent funding and could find ways to help struggling students like Freddie Gray. But things have changed since then.
To provide a clear picture of how neighborhoods like this fall into decline let me share with you what I watched happen to one neighborhood in Philadelphia during my teaching career. I began teaching in a middle school in a predominantly African-American community and remained there for my entire 30 year teaching career. When I began in this school there were several manufacturing companies in the area (Budd and Tasty Baking Company to name two.) Parents of my students were often employed in well paying jobs at these factories. By the middle of my career, manufacturing in the area was declining. The only new businesses that came into the area were fast food restaurants. By the time I retired, I was teaching students who were living in homeless shelters. This is the type of decline that we are looking at in parts of Baltimore and other major cities.
Education reform was just beginning in isolated areas of the country when I retired. I have watched it spread like a cancer, mostly in rural and urban public schools. There are many problems with various parts of education reform but those that effect poor neighborhoods the most are: the push to have everyone be on a college track, pushing school choice in the form of charter schools, and high stakes testing.
For a neighborhood like Sandtown to rebuild after so many jobs have been outsourced, the educational focus on teaching students in area schools must include coursework that will produce police officers, fire fighters, local business owners, plumbers, electricians, and building contractors. These are careers that can’t be outsourced. They also pay decent salaries and help the community. Not only do those working in these jobs remain in the neighborhood, they provide role models for children in school. Anyone who has learned a skill that provides them with a good income always has the option of going to college at a later date. The added advantage of focusing on careers is that students can easily see the connection of class work to the real world.
In the case of charter schools, we need to demand a moratorium on any new charters that will drain public funds from schools in poor neighborhoods. Charters were originally started as laboratories of best practices that could then be duplicated in existing schools. Under NCLB they were expanded as a way to offer school choice to parents. Unfortunately, most states have little to no oversight of what is happening in charter schools. This means that those who most need the innovation of a charter school might not be attending one.
High stakes testing is causing stress for teachers and students. More importantly it is stealing educational time from those who need it the most. Teachers are teaching to the test not only to save their jobs but to make sure that their schools don’t lose money if scores do not meet the required standards. Students like Freddie Gray, who had suffered from the effects of lead poisoning from homes where he lived, had learning issues. Standardized testing does not always allow accommodations for students like Freddie Gray. In addition, Maryland is using a version of PARCC. Seventy-five per cent of students in grades 3-8 will take the PARCC via computer. What happens to students in poor neighborhoods who don’t have computers readily available at home? They will already be behind the curve when using a computer to answer test questions.
The solution to give all students a quality education becomes more important every day. Our schools must teach more than just reading and mathematics. We must teach job skills that relate to the curriculum to keep all students engaged. We do not need to constantly give standardized tests unless they are going to be used as a diagnostic tool. If we take these steps soon we can avoid creating another generation where young people like Freddie Gray are educationally overlooked.