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It Takes a Village: Educators, Unions Rally for Continued Funding of Community Schools

Baltimore City Paper - November 4, 2014, by Evan Serpick - Administrators, teachers, union organizers, community leaders, politicians, and students—including cheerleading squads and step teams—were among those gathered in front of City Hall on Oct. 21 to sing the praises of community schools, some literally.

“We are gentle, angry people,” The Charm City Labor Chorus sang from the dais. “And we are singing for our lives.”

The effort, organized by the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU), Maryland Communities United, Center for Popular Democracy, and AFT-Maryland, aims to press the city government to continue funding the city’s 48 community schools and to ultimately expand the program to include all 210 city schools. (Disclosure: My wife is a teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools.) Community schools work to help students and their families access non-academic services such as health care and food assistance. One key element of the advocates’ efforts, many of those assembled acknowledged, was to inform the public and key officials of exactly what community schools are and how they’re beneficial to students and families.

“People hear ‘community schools’ and they don’t know what that means,” said Councilman Carl Stokes (D, 12th District), who spoke to the crowd “on behalf of [his] colleagues” in support of the effort.

The $10 million in municipal funding for the city’s 48 community schools pays for each school to employ a site coordinator to connect students and families in need with existing services, both public and private. The funding does not, organizers emphasize, pay for the services themselves.

Christopher Gaither, who has been principal of Upper Fells Point’s Wolfe Street Academy for nine years, spoke to the assembled group in Spanish and English. He said when Wolfe Street became a community school in 2006, the school, which had a 72 percent English language learner (ELL) population and 94 percent reduced-price lunch population, ranked 77th among city elementary schools. Eight years later, the ELL rate has gone up to 78 and reduced-lunch rate up to 96, but the school is now ranked second in the city academically, behind only Roland Park Elementary-Middle (which, as Gaither estimated, has an 18 percent reduced-price lunch population). Gaither gives much of the credit to being a community school.

“It sets up systems to identify partnerships to help families to take on challenges,” he said, before adding, more colloquially, “It gives people fish and teaches them how to fish.”

Gaither said his site coordinator helps families apply for food stamps and Medicaid, and also helps find mental health and housing services when needed, in addition to establishing after-school and recreational programs.

“No parent at Roland Park would think it’s acceptable if their child had to go to school hungry or without sleeping because of bedbugs,” he said. “Why should our parents?”

He added that, while community school funding doesn’t pay directly for social services, it does make that funding more effective, since site coordinators are able to link social-service providers directly with families in need so those providers spend less time and money on outreach.

Among those speaking at the rally were Chelsea Gilmer, a seventh-grader at City Springs Elementary/Middle School downtown who is active in Baltimore Urban Debate League, and Yolanda Pernell, a parent of children at Callaway Elementary, a community school in Northwest Baltimore where the site coordinator created an after-school program with the Boys and Girls Club of Metropolitan Baltimore. 

Fred D. Mason, president of the Maryland and D.C. AFL-CIO, was on hand to explain why unions support community schools. “It provides a better, safer, more productive community for teachers to work in,” he said. “When the community organizations are coming into the school, interacting with the students, it just make a better overall environment for everybody.”

But BTU president Marietta English, who has been pushing City Hall hard on the issue, worries that funding for community schools will be cut. “We’re looking at how we can get the funding for next year,” she said. “Right now, it’s all about the budget deficit. Everybody I talk to is like, ‘Well you know we got a budget deficit.’ I hear their support but in the end, it’s ‘Where do we get the money?’”

Speaking to City Paper after the rally, Stokes said funding community schools was imperative.

“The city government needs to put it in the budget in this coming budget year—they should pass it so that it goes into the budget for July and can apply to next year,” he said. “This works. The schools that have the full funding for the coordinator, it works for them. A lot of kids come from environments that aren’t as strong as they could be, should be, and to make that environment in the school helps kids all around.”