Cray-Cray

Cray-Cray

In the last few weeks, in education news, this: Jason Botel, an advocate with local ties, surprised everyone and took a job as senior advisor in the White House; Betsy Devos was confirmed as Secretary of Education; Governor Hogan introduced a charter bill, which a representative from the Maryland State Teachers Association promptly called a fraud; and City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises announced a possible lay-off of 1,000 staff, including teachers, due to a $130 million budget gap.

Also: Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank called President Trump an asset to the country. Steph Curry, who endorses the company’s gear, agreed "if you remove the 'et' from asset." City Councilman Ryan Dorsey called Plank a white supremacist. Mayor Pugh said he’s not. Under Armour just recently joined a funding collaborative to support summer learning for Baltimore City students.

I’ve been involved in education in Baltimore City for 26 years, first as a teacher, then as a principal in what we now call a traditional school, then at central office, and—for the last 10 years—as a founder and leader of three charter schools—Afya, Brehms Lane, and Tunbridge. I’ve seen enough over the years to know something about education and public policy. I know enough to say I’ve never seen anything quite like what we are living now. In my house, we say cray-cray for everything, good and bad. My dog is cray-cray. The mess in my girls’ bedrooms is cray-cray. My girls think I am cray-cray for thinking their mess is cray-cray.

Charter schools, right now, are in the middle of the cray-cray. My kids’ swim coach, Solomon, has a saying that he repeats endlessly: Excuses are like socks—everyone wears them and they all stink. Nowadays there sure are a lot of opinions about charter schools and while they don’t all stink—too many of them seem to be too driven by single-minded ideology. Charter schools are good. Charter schools are bad. We need more charter schools. We should get rid of all charter schools.

In this blog I plan on addressing some of the issues surrounding charter schools specifically and education more generally. As I said in my introduction to this blog, with so much going on I feel the need to speak up and to speak out.

I want to start by saying why our charter schools are so important, so necessary to Baltimore City. Afya Public Charter School was started in 2007 by Katie Eichman, Pat Njenga, Mike Morgan, Karen Hughes and myself. We all still work in our schools. Our school opened in an old Catholic School building, The Shrine of the Little Flower, in Belair-Edison. The building had been vacant for five years. The courtyard was a drug haven. There was a murder on the front steps of the school a few days prior to our beginning construction. There were no viable middle school options for kids in the neighborhood. We opened there, then, because there was a need and the community embraced us, fully. That need remains now, ten years later. Afya is part and parcel of the community.

We started Tunbridge Public Charter School in 2010. St. Mary of the Assumption School closed, after operating for 135 years, in 2009, and was likely to be vacant for several years. Never a good thing for a neighborhood. We acquired the building, renovated the space, and quickly opened our doors. Our mission was to be an anchor in the neighborhood, a middle point bringing the two sides of York Rd.—one much more affluent and white; the other less wealthy and African American—together. In the last six years the York Road corridor has thrived in some areas and struggled in others. My office is on the fourth floor of a convent we converted into a middle school. I look out the window and see a cool new building rehabbed into a kitchen incubator. South of here by just a few block, gunshots fire in the night. Tunbridge has become part and parcel of the community.

We converted Brehms Lane Elementary School to a charter school last year. A quick walk from Afya, Brehms Lane is a large elementary school that has struggled a lot over the past six or seven years. Its reputation in the neighborhood had diminished over time. When schools struggle, neighborhoods struggle.

Last spring, in the afternoon, directly across the street from the school, a man was shot dead. Balloon gardens rise in the community too frequently to honor others that have been killed. As with Tunbridge and Afya, we want Brehms Lane to become part and parcel of the community in the best possible way, a positive way. Things need to change. We want to be a part of that.

So this is the beginning of our story, my story. When I hear things—cray-cray things—about charters, I always come back these schools, to the children (including my own) and teachers and families who are connected to them, who live in them and bring life to them, who make them: I come back to these things and say that I know something different. I know that these schools are essential to this city. I know they have nothing to do with grizzly bears or fraud or Trump.

These places are, or are becoming, good places for kids and families alike. In these times, I find this sustaining.

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