Frigid Baltimore City schools: The racism we haven't confronted

Earlier this week, amid freezing temperatures, students across Baltimore City returned from winter break to face unhe...

Posted: Jan 5, 2018 11:41 AM
Updated: Jan 5, 2018 11:41 AM

Earlier this week, amid freezing temperatures, students across Baltimore City returned from winter break to face unheated classrooms. About 60 schools -- nearly one-third of the entire system -- reported issues, leading to the closure of four schools on Wednesday and early dismissal in two others. The teacher's union condemned the conditions as "unfair and inhumane." And teachers quickly took to social media to post images of shivering students and thermostats registering harsh temperatures.

With a closer look at the images, it was hard to miss the color of the children -- almost every single one black or brown. Classrooms of freezing children of color is the epitome of systemic racism, laid bare.

The images brought back memories from when I worked as a Baltimore City educator at one of the schools affected this past week. My third year as a second grade teacher, around this time of winter, I remember waking up to the alarm on my phone, reaching to turn it off and checking my weather app: "7 degrees, fair/windy."

When I arrived at school, I found my classroom heater had stopped working. It was frigid. I taught two-digit subtraction and led a picture book read-aloud with students sitting criss-crossed on the class carpet, adorned in a colorful array of jackets, hats, scarves and gloves. These conditions lasted several days. Ultimately, my administration moved me temporarily to the library on the other side of the building, where heat was working.

My students were understanding and compliant. We had done several lessons on the value of showing perseverance in the face of adversity. When I think back on that moment now, I think: No, this is wrong. You should be angry. You should demand better. You - we - should not accept this. But I also remember the short-term pragmatism: They were 7, I was the teacher and we had to get through the school day.

Operating within such a strained system, there is pressure to be a good soldier. To carry on and make a way. To some extent, you have to adopt this mentality to do the job; otherwise you'll become paralyzed with anger and hopelessness. And yet as a young, inexperienced teacher, many days I felt like an accomplice to a large-scale crime, all too aware of the inequity playing out around me but also the limitations of what I could do to combat it.

There are many, structural layers shaping unequal educational opportunity in this country -- disparate access to technology, high-quality curriculum and teachers, small class sizes, advanced coursework, summer enrichment opportunities, and more. But the recent reports from Baltimore highlight something more visceral and basic: the neglect of rock-bottom, foundational needs of human beings.

And this problem isn't unique to winter. The opposite issue emerges in the summer when students face scorching temperatures with unreliable or nonexistent air conditioning. A city of students go without running drinking water because of concerns of lead poisoning. (Administrators later replaced the running water with water bottles.) Cockroaches and rodents scurry across classroom floors.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times journalist and New America fellow, tweeted, "I say it over and over, and I will say it again. Our children know how much we value them by the schools we build for them." The recent reports out of Baltimore strike a chord precisely because the message they send to students and families of color is so plainly, unarguably egregious.

How do we right these wrongs? Maryland state officials charge local fiscal mismanagement of dollars as city leaders point to the compounded effects of underfunding city schools for decades. There are valid questions around where promised school funding from a newly built casino in downtown Baltimore is going. We need clearer answers and accountability, but amid all this back and forth, children are freezing.

To be sure, there have been small glimmers of hope and progress, the fruit of civil rights advocates' efforts over the years. A major win came in 2013 when the Maryland General Assembly approved legislation to authorize $1 billion to renovate nearly two dozen city schools by 2021. The first two state-of-the-art schools of this initiative opened earlier this fall, and officials say they are moving ahead on time and within budget with the rest.

As important as these developments are, they are small and slow, when children are still freezing. Now, Maryland education advocates are again mobilizing for another battle in Annapolis as state lawmakers seek to comprehensively overhaul the school funding system for the first time in 15 years. It is a critical moment for equity with potential for long-lasting impact.

Even still, injecting financial resources and renovating buildings does not address the more fundamental, entrenched problem we all live with. Brown v. Board of Education teaches "separate but equal" is faulty doctrine; schools will never be truly equal if they are not integrated. And as Dr. Alvin Thornton, a Howard University professor, said in a recent interview, "Schools should not be asked to bear the load of desegregating our society. ... If we want to have diverse schools, you must have diverse communities." This work requires grappling with the legacies of white flight, redlining and discriminatory housing practices that have enabled the de facto segregation we see. Indeed, as several scholars have noted, housing policy is education policy.

In 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to an audience at Grosse Pointe High School in Detroit, three weeks before he was assassinated. "America is still a racist country," he said. "Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. ... I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it."

A willingness to admit the truth when we discover it. Now is precisely such a moment for truth-telling that lasts beyond a news cycle -- in Baltimore, in Maryland, and in our broader American community.

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