A Plan for Improving Baltimore City’s Public School System in 25 Short Years
I’ve got public education in my bones. My grandmother was a teacher. My mom was a teacher. My sister is a teacher. My wife is a teacher. My dad, pictured here with me, coached and worked as an athletic director for 36 years. My most vivid memories of childhood include going to my dad’s school on snow days to play basketball and volleyball with my sisters. Snow meant no school! And yet we went to school anyway, and had the place to ourselves.
I taught for nine years here in Baltimore City. Inspired by those experiences, and the positive memories of a great principal that my dad worked for, a man by the name of Lou Beard, I wanted to lead a school. I got my chance at Waverly Elementary School in 2001. My work there was the foundational experience of my career. I still had education in my bones, but I borrowed extensively from Thomas Sergiovanni, who talks about leadership coming from the hand, the heart and the mind, to develop and implement an educational philosophy that was all-encompassing. I led with everything that I had.
I loved Waverly. There, I led and learned from an amazing group of educators, many of whom are still teaching and leading schools today. One of them, Obi Okobi, a joyous, humane, dynamic educator, died—so suddenly, so shockingly, so unfairly—just the other day.
I think of Obi, I think of Waverly: I think of Waverly, I smile.
Here’s what Waverly taught me: The two most important things in creating schools are money and autonomy. A school certainly needs to be grounded, intellectually and morally, in a strong instructional belief system, which I’ll speak to in later posts, but without money and autonomy it’s hard to start anything and harder to sustain it.
I think of autonomy as space, the room to do the work of teaching and learning and building a school community. Clearing and creating the space to work is essential to our school system’s future. First, a few words about money.
Schools need to have money to be successful. It’s as simple as that. Getting money, and more of it, directly to the schools, is the complicated part. And then, once the resources are there, at the school, spending and investing in ways that sustain and build the school community in positive ways is also an enormous and complex endeavor. But ample money is a must.
I’ve had some money in my career. I did my principal internship at a large, and exceptionally well-managed, elementary school near the Pimlico Racetrack. I was there in 2000. The school was led by a wonderful principal, James Smith, who knew how to work the system, work the bureaucracy, to garner resources for his community. I remember sitting in meetings, on late Friday afternoons, and thinking hard about how to effectively spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an extended day program. It was a good feeling to have ideas and have the money to make an impact.
Waverly was part of a network of struggling schools, created by Carmen Russo, the CEO at the time. Russo gave special attention to these schools, providing each of them with a pathway to additional resources and the space and autonomy to work. In the early years of this initiative my fellow principals and I had what we needed to succeed. Most of our schools were very successful. A few of them—Waverly, William Paca, Bay Brook—represent some of the best examples of school improvement in this city in the last 30 years.
I’ve also had little to no money. My last year at Waverly was 2006. The school system was facing down a fiscal crisis and my discretionary budget, after staffing (which was severely cut), for 650 students was about $52,000. That’s a little more than $74 a child for everything from paper to buses for trips to curriculum and professional development. Peanuts.
Running that school that year was one of the most challenging experiences of my professional career. There were multiple factors in play. The school expanded from an elementary to a dual-facility elementary/middle school. The buildings were two blocks from one another. I did a lot of walking, miles and miles a day. Both buildings were falling apart. The exterior doors in the elementary school would only securely close with padlocks. The custodial services were essentially non-existent. Many mornings, I mopped the floors myself. I also had three children under the age of five, one of which thought crying was an essential life skill.
My bones got worn out from these things alone. Not having money, especially after having some, made it a lot worse. It was my experience at Waverly that inspired me to start charter schools. Aside from money, this CEO’s district had something else: incredible leadership. Atop our network of schools was a duo of administrators who were clear-headed, determined, and fully committed to fighting back the bureaucracy. One gentleman, a round little man with big eyeglasses and a bigger heart, just wouldn’t take no for an answer. The system would say this can’t be done. He’d say yes it can. The bureaucracy would layer over a problem with red tape. He’d hack it away. The system would build brick walls. He’d shovel under them. His name was Dale Johnson. I’m not sure if Dale knew a blessed thing about instruction. But he did know what schools needed to be successful. He got done what needed to be done.
Our leaders, Dale Johnson and Cynthia Janssen, cleared the space so schools could work. Inside of this space, competent, professional, passionate principals and teachers could thrive. Waverly lost a lot of resources in my fourth and fifth year there. The school system nearly went bankrupt. Dale and Cynthia both moved to Florida to work in a school district there. Losing them was as debilitating as losing money.
I vowed, after that experience, that I would never let what was properly started fail because of the encroaching or ever changing bureaucracy. I learned that running successful schools required space and autonomy.
In the past several years the fight for money has consumed us. We rally. We organize. We fight. Money has nearly become our sole focus. This effort is not nearly enough. Our city needs to further mobilize to demand that money is well invested. The single best way to do this is to prioritize school- and community-based autonomy over centralization. This needs to be the standard for all schools, charter and traditional, and all communities. The current divisiveness between charters and traditional schools lies in the fact that charters get more direct funding. The entire premise of all funding determinations going forward must be that all schools get as much direct funding as possible. Charters and traditional schools will still experience funding in different ways, but the tension can be decreased if these differences are better understood and if more direct funding goes to traditional schools.
Some might say the school system has been doing this. Don’t believe it. Here’s how centralization works in the most pernicious of ways. A few years ago, leadership decided that all schools should have PE teachers and art teachers. Who can argue with that? So the district set aside millions of dollars to support this initiative. In essence the arts and physical education became a centralized service—the school system allocated positions to schools. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—in schools that work. In the many that don’t, these allocations rarely turned into quality teachers who could make a difference. Too often they remained vacant. I said at the time, and say again, this approach to providing service to schools is just plain deficient. The central office can placate advocates by saying it “hears” the need for more arts, for more PE. But the implementation is so poor, so inefficient, that the effort is, in far too many cases, wasteful. Interestingly, these vacant positions sit there, on the books, until the school year, when they are swept up by the district in what is then called a cost savings.
Dr. Alonso made autonomy and school-based decision-making the central theme of his theory of action back in 2007. Over the years, we’ve moved farther and farther away from it, and we made key policy decisions to undermine our efforts. These efforts include the centralization of art and physical education described above. They also include the 2010 teacher contract, which began with promise and devolved into a bureaucratic and centralized mess. Successful implementation of that contract required management expertise at all levels of the school system and a commitment to high standards. We have not been up to the challenge.
At this time, our school district has no unifying theme beyond the rally for more money. This has to change. Immediately. We need to return to the belief that the institutional and personnel power base in our school system is and belongs in our schools. Unlike last time, when we started with this belief in powerful and creative ways, but abandoned it all too quickly, we need to start with this belief and sustain it, even as we come to the very challenging implications of this belief system.
When good schools have autonomy they become powerful epicenters of communities. Autonomy comes in a number of shapes and forms. Charter schools have autonomy by law. Some traditional schools have more autonomy because they have a strong principal or a strong neighborhood or a strong tradition. Other traditional schools have autonomies because they got a boost from federal/state intervention programs. In the past, we gave more autonomy to networks of schools, like the CEO’s district in the early 2000s. There are many ways to provide schools with the autonomies they need. Next time I’ll talk more about building schools and communities based on the promise of autonomy and I’ll talk further about what autonomy means and what autonomies are essential.
This time, I have but one more point:
Giving schools autonomy and therefore power does create problems, a lot of them. I don’t dispute that. I argue, rather, that problems in urban school systems are inevitable. We are better off, however, building and investing in schools and communities, even if we can only do it very slowly and over a long period of time, rather than investing in a centralize bureaucracy and belief system. Centralization can perhaps control things better, but centralization will never be the key to building and sustaining anything of substance. I believe it’s possible to slowly build, over the next 25 years, a school system that truly values individual schools and communities. I know that if we try and centralize and control things, even if we get a lot more money, will still face, 50 years from now, the same problems that cripple us today.