Clear, Build, Hold: A Plan for Improving Baltimore City’s Public School System in 25 Short Years

Clear, Build, Hold: A Plan for Improving Baltimore City’s Public School System in 25 Short Years

The first of a four-part series

Introduction

After toppling the government of Saddam Hussein in 2003, American military leaders and diplomats were unprepared for what came next. Over time, the military learned from experience. Raw displays of power—“shock and awe”—gave way to a more nuanced strategy known as “clear, hold, and build.” This latter approach had some success but ultimately failed because Iraqi and US leaders were not able to consolidate gains won on the battlefield into sustainable political outcomes.

War is destructive. Education is constructive. Still, there is much to learn from our experiences in Iraq and apply to education here in Baltimore City.

Over the past 25 years, Baltimore City has tried a number of educational reforms to improve the school system. We began this century by focusing on curriculum, adopting Open Court across all elementary schools. We also retained students who weren’t on grade level and required that they attend summer school. Both of these initiatives seemed so obvious at the time. Baltimore City Schools had gone years without a coherent reading curriculum. The school system also had a history of promoting students who were well below grade level. By standardizing the curriculum and setting high standards, the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners brought a sense of unity and purpose to the district as a whole. Both of these initiatives eventually brought new sets of problems. But they were both good starts.

There were other initiatives: We created elementary/middle schools. We started a lot of Innovation High Schools, and charter schools, and transformation schools. We also began a new teacher contract and a bold plan for building new schools and renovating old ones.

We’ve tried a lot of things. Some of them were quite successful initially. Too few of these initiatives have been sustained. Baltimore Renaissance Academy (BRA) is an example of this. The school was opened in 2005 as part of the small-schools movement, a trend that began in NYC and was adopted in Baltimore by Carmen Russo, the CEO here from 2000 to 2003, with a particular focus on high schools. The idea for this particular school was to replicate the work of Noble Street Charter School, in Chicago, here in Baltimore. BRA was not a charter school, though it did have an operator (a non-profit out of NY) to provide additional supports and oversight. Then, as now, the school shared space with Booker T. Washington Middle School. In 2006 I spent two days visiting BRA. It was clear that there was continuity to the work. There was a sense of purpose and strong leadership was in place. Karl Perry was the principal. His demeanor was quiet but he was strong and confident. It wasn’t perfect. What school is? Especially one in a really challenging neighborhood. But the fabric of the place, the mission, was knit tight and the students and teachers worked with a sense of commitment and purpose.

Over time the operator left, principals came and went, the original vision for the school faded. Taking absolutely nothing away from the people who are working at the school today, BRA is a shell of what it was originally intended to be. How does this happen? Money, and the lack of enough of it, is one reason for this. Another is that the school system itself was never fully committed to the implementation of any of the Innovation High Schools. It liked the idea of them, but was never really willing to commit to essential autonomies so these schools could build strong and lasting foundations. A final problem was that our CEOs just don’t stay very long. Carmen Russo lasted three years. Dr. Alonso promised he would stay for ten years and left after six. Dr. Thornton declared the school system was on the threshold of greatness; 18 months later he was gone.

The ebbs and flows of leadership, and the varying initiatives we’ve tried, mean that we, as a city, as a school system, have failed to consolidate our gains. The churn of change prevents a sense of forward momentum. There’s nothing linear about our work. Too often we’re going around and around. Very often these are circles of confusion and disorder. A school like Baltimore Renaissance Academy was constructed on a theory—the idea that small schools, especially in the middle grades and high school, were important. Smaller schools helped teachers and principals create a sense of place, of community. With an operator in place, structures of support could be provided. Over time, the school would/could become an anchor in its community. That was the idea, then. Now we’re back to believing we need bigger schools, an idea straight from the 1970s. The current argument is that small schools cost more and are less efficient. Larger schools, we are telling ourselves, have more scale and can therefore offer more services and resources. The beliefs behind BRA are fading. Sadly, the school seems outdated and faces closure annually.

This is a problem. If what was right just ten or so years ago is wrong now it either wasn’t really right a decade ago, and shouldn’t have been implemented, or it isn’t really wrong now. My sense of this is that our best ideas of ten or 15 years ago are still very good ideas. But they were never fully implemented, or they were implemented without thorough and complete planning. They certainly were never sustained. We haven’t held on to them. Our commitment to these ideas changed in the face of new leadership or different trends. This is what has to change if our school system is to improve. 

What we need is a true long term plan for improvement, grounded in neighborhood and community development. The military strategy of “clear, hold, and build” offers foundational language for this work, with some re-ordering and adding. First, I believe, we need to clear and create space so the work can happen. Then we need to build. This means we need to build from the ground up, or build from what's already working. Finally, and most challenging, we need to focus resources on holding and sustaining our gains for decades at a time. 

In the coming weeks—I will take a week off for spring break!—I’ll talk through this work in three additional posts. Next time: Clearing and creating the space so schools can grow and thrive—one community, one school, at a time.