By Karen Webber, director of OSI-Baltimore’s Education and Youth Development program
I had the honor of participating in the 2016 Progressive Congress Strategy Summit that was convened in Baltimore on February 5-6. National leaders and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus talked about their shared strategy for progressive change. Many referenced the presidential debates where, for the first time, democratic hopefuls were arguing about whose platform was most progressive. The rallying cry of participants was that the time for progressive political thought and action had finally arrived. There were robust discussions about topics like “The Systemic Challenges of Fighting Injustice” and “Building An Economy for All,” and a roundtable on public education called “Investing in Public Education.” Of the seven panelists at this roundtable, two were Open Society Foundations representatives, including Christopher Scott, from OSF’s Policy Center in Washington DC and me from OSI-Baltimore.
Scott spoke passionately about populations of students being left behind academically due to incarceration, often for very minor, non-violent offenses. These groups of students often face weeks and even months without any academic services, making a successful re-entry into society nearly impossible. I spoke of the conditions that our non-incarcerated students face in our urban, predominantly poor and predominantly African American public schools in Baltimore that require dramatic reform if we are to effectively engage our students in the larger society. I described a Baltimore City school system in which nearly 85% of the student body comes from communities of entrenched and concentrated poverty. Anyone who glances at newspaper headlines knows that these very communities are besieged by unprecedented violence and epidemic drug use, to name only two of our most persistent problems.
Educators are painfully aware that the problems experienced in the impoverished communities and homes of our students do not check themselves at the proverbial school house door, but follow students into the classroom and often manifest in an array of often maladaptive student behaviors (and correlative adult responses) that negate all efforts to advance student progress. The message to the Progressive Congress and to all of us is that unless and until we acknowledge and aggressively address the children’s responses to their adverse circumstances, regardless of what curriculum we choose for teachers and students, we will never move the needle on student progress.
I shy away from telling the stories of the children I’ve encountered, not only because they are too painful to recount, but also because I fear that I am reneging on an unspoken promise that I made to shield from harm each and every student in my classroom, my school, and my district. But if you know any Baltimore City Public School teachers, ask them about the behaviors and circumstances of which I speak. Ask them also about the untoward responses of many of the adults in the building who have never been trained in classroom management, de-escalation, childhood development, trauma-informed care, restorative practices, or any other progressive response that would equip these teachers to effectively manage the behaviors that present in a normal day in a Baltimore City School.
I don’t mean to be a “downer” as one teacher who taught in a private school many years ago accused me of being. I was happy that another public school teacher took her to task and stated that she had no idea what had been wrought by No Child Left Behind in the public school landscape. Recurrent cycles of testing gave teachers little opportunity to form relationships with their students or introduce relevant, interesting, or innovative curriculum into the classroom. All told, what we all agreed upon concerning public education, is that at a minimum teachers must be equipped with the training needed to understand, unpack and diffuse student behaviors; and the absence of this teacher training sets teachers, students, and communities up to fail. At the conclusion of our discussion, Representative Mark Takano from California, who himself was a high school English teacher said he was determined to advance legislation aimed at broadening and improving teacher training to encompass student behavior and appropriate responses thereto. It was one of many moments at the summit where the progressive agenda seemed to making real progress. At OSI-Baltimore, we’re working to create new innovative schools, expand community schools, implement restorative practices, and more, to bring the progressive agenda into our schools. Now is the time.