Good Things are Happening in Baltimore

After nearly two decades of investing in U.S. education, our team at the Gates Foundation has learned a number of lessons that inform our current work and strategies. One of those lessons can be boiled down into three words: local context matters.

We don’t believe in a one-size-fits all approach to education, and we’ve seen time and again how solutions work best when they apply teachers’ and other school leaders’ local knowledge and experience.

My recent visit to Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools) was a powerful reminder of this lesson. Under the leadership of CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises and her team, the City Schools team is putting in place a vision for improvement that truly reflects the community they serve. And while it’s relatively early in the work, after visiting with district and school leaders I came away inspired and energized by what I saw in “Charm City.”

It’s almost impossible to visit Baltimore and not acknowledge the different ways inequity has marked the city. The legacy of systemic racism and “redlining” housing policies are still visible on the map. Challenges like concentrated poverty, opioids, and violence have contributed to a decline in the population across the city and are often leading the headlines we see on mainstream news about Baltimore.

But Baltimore is also a diverse city with unique neighborhoods, world-renowned universities and hospitals, a growing tech and cyber sector, and loads of untapped potential. Reconciling these two realities is a challenge for a school district serving more than 80,000 students — the vast majority of whom come from low-income backgrounds — and that is chronically underfunded (though a statewide commission has recently put forward recommendations that would go a long way towards addressing that gap).

Upon taking the helm as CEO in 2016, Dr. Santelises came face-to-face with many of the signs of the “opportunity gap” in Baltimore: declining enrollment, low test scores across grades, neglected buildings and a significant budget shortfall. These are the results of decades of systems and structures that have perpetuated inequity and shaped how Baltimore residents and students see themselves.

The question is, how do you turn around trends that have been decades in the making? Here’s how Dr. Santelises and her team are working to answer that question:

Building a vision with the community. Dr. Santelises began her tenure by engaging the community to collectively decide what the priorities for the school system should be. The data made the challenges clear — for example, fewer than 1 in 5 students were meeting grade level expectations in English Language Arts (ELA) — but improving education for all students requires more than just focusing on a few subject areas. Conversations with families, students, community members, and local employers led to a multi-year strategic plan, called the Blueprint for Success, that focuses on three key themes that came from the community conversations:

· Student wholeness. This means looking at students as whole people with unique circumstances, needs and talents. It also means engaging students with a well-rounded curriculum, counseling, and other opportunities that support their learning and social and emotional development. As Dr. Santelises has said, “Yes, we want test scores to rise; yes, we want our kids to get what they need. But the reality is, they’re whole people and whole people don’t just do one thing.”

· Literacy skills. Not only did the data make this need obvious, but employers in Baltimore made their voices heard in calling for more focus on fundamental communication and writing skills that are important to success in their workplaces.

· Leadership. This means a focus on developing leadership at all levels in a school, and making sure school leaders have opportunities to grow professionally through coaching and mentoring, as well as chances to collaborate and learn from their peers. It also applies to engaging students to lead and use their voices to shape the work of the district.

Changing the narrative for students and schools. To combat deeply entrenched stereotypes and empower students to be a voice in shaping their own city’s narrative, City Schools has also begun piloting a social studies curriculum that seeks to connect students to the rich history, legacy, and realities of Baltimore. BMore Me features units like ‘What Makes Us Baltimore?’ and ‘How can we build a better Baltimore?’ that help students learn about their community’s history and think deeply about how they fit in and how they can affect Baltimore’s future.

In one classroom I visited, 7th graders were talking about everything from empty homes they pass by every day to how Baltimore was impacted by the War of 1812. They weren’t being fed a narrative of what Baltimore is or should be. It was clear they were engaged and invested in defining their Baltimore.

When I think about Baltimore City Public Schools, this is what I think about: I think about students being surrounded by adults who believe in them and who are continually getting better at their craft; I think of students being challenged to meet high expectations and having the support to reach them; and I think of students forming their personal identities while also developing an understanding of the identity of their community. They have a Blueprint that makes me believe progress is possible. I look forward to coming back to Baltimore and seeing even more of what I saw in that 7th grade classroom.

President, U.S. Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.