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Commentaryby Melissa Schober4:19 pmMar 27, 20190

The dirty secret in the data: Equity in Baltimore schools is a long way off

Fixing the racial disparities and lack of support for special needs students means facing up to how bad things are now. OP-ED

Above: A parent asks, why can’t Baltimore school officials do more to close the achievement gap and give all students better opportunities? (Fern Shen)

Baltimore school officials make a promise that is lofty and soaring but also, to me, rather heartbreaking.

“Every year students enter city schools with talent, dreams, and enormous potential,” they note in a strategy for serving those students entitled Blueprint for Success.

But for many Baltimore children, that success isn’t forthcoming – and that’s disproportionately true for students of color and students with Individual Education Plans.

The data I have reviewed tell a different story of dreams snuffed out, potential never reached.

Why? Because there are not enough specialized program slots. These programs are only offered in a few select schools, mostly in “White L” neighborhoods.

And most tellingly, there remain huge racial disparities across the system and a stubborn achievement gap.

School Choice for Some

Each winter, many middle and all high school students participate in Baltimore City’s school choice process.

Middle school students can apply to specialized programs, such as Ingenuity and Advanced Academics, offered at only a few select schools, mostly in non-black neighborhoods.

Overall, some 70 schools offer opportunities for Gifted and Advanced Learners, or students who scored above the 80th to 89th percentile range in the English Language Arts (ELA) and math assessments, known as PARCC.

  At the selective high schools, many more qualified students applied than seats were available.

In theory, AA is open to all students as it relies on a composite score. The composite score is based on final 4th grade grades, first quarter 5th grade grades, attendance and PARCC scores.

I focused on middle school because AA enhances a student’s grade point average through weighting. (For examples, if a student earns a B in a standard class, they receive a 3.0. If that same student earns a B in an honors or Advanced Placement class, they earn a 4.0.)

Higher grade points boost a student’s overall GPA and raise the composite score, making entry into one of the city’s selective high schools more likely.

While each of the selective high schools has a minimum entry score (610), all had cut-off scores that were well above the minimum score for entry.

Put more plainly: many more students applied than seats were available, so only the top scoring students were offered a seat.

How hard is it to get accepted to a selective high school? The Fund for Education Excellence reported that “in 2016, there were 1,848 applicants for the 400 seats at Baltimore City College (City) and 1,736 applicants for the 425 open seats at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (Poly).”

Pay, Then Wait

Given the disparities in schools across the city, I wondered how many students of color and students with disabilities made it into one specific program: Advanced Academics (AA).

I asked for AA rather than Ingenuity because it is partially administered by an outside organization and requires a separate test offered on a single Saturday at a location not easily accessible to all students and families.

I initially asked for data on December 20 and was told to file a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request .

I’m thrilled to see that City Schools is finally moving to adopt an explicit equity policy – but the true test will be implementation.

I submitted my request on January 2. On January 10, I was told there was a fee associated with gathering the data for a maximum of 10 hours of work, as no report existed. I could have access to the records for $290-$470.

I paid the fee on January 18. And then I waited. I finally received the data on February 26.

Dramatic Disparities

The Blueprint’s claims that “City Schools leaders inspire, develop, and manage the conditions and environments that create high-performing learning communities that promote equity and excellence for all.”

The data tells a different story. The breakdown  of the 228 Advanced Academic participants 2017-18 was:

  • Only 14 were Hispanic. (That’s 6%. The district is 10% Hispanic.)
  • Only 128 were African American. (That’s 56%. Middle school enrollment is 80% African American.)
  • None were children with Individualized Education Programs. (In 2015, 16% of all students had an IEP.)
  • 80 slots went to white children. (That’s 35%. Middle school enrollment is 8% white.)
  • Finally, female students were over represented (62% of enrollees)

(Demographic data is from the Maryland School Report Card. The IEP data is from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. )

Inequality in Elementary School . . .

In January, the Baltimore City School Board renewed the charter for The Green School, a small K-5 school in the city’s Mayfield neighbor.

One board member voted not to renew the school’s charter after learning that 75% of white students scored as proficient in math on last year’s standardized tests, while only 2.6% of black students did.

That board members – who hold power over appointing the CEO and the school system’s $1.3 billion budget – were shocked by the disparity is itself shocking.

It is clear that no report existed for the small AA program. But data – very public data – is available for all schools.:

  • Francis Scott Key: In elementary, only 28.6% of black students achieved proficiency in math and only 21.6% in ELA. Contrast with 73% of white students in math and 78.4% in ELA. ZERO students with an IEP achieved proficiency in ELA and only 20% in math.
  • Tunbridge Charter: In elementary, 18.7% of black students achieved proficiency in math, 80% of white students did. ZERO students with an IEP achieved proficiency in math and only 5.3% in ELA.
  • Hampstead Hill, one of the few 5-star schools in Baltimore: 53.5% of black students met proficiency in ELA while 70.7 % of white students did. Fewer than 1 in 4 students with an IEP met ELA standards.
  • Roland Park: 72.1% of white elementary students met standards in ELA, while only 32.5% of black students did. Only 1 in 5 special education students met ELA standards.
  • Patterson Park Public Charter: 28.6% of black elementary students met proficiency in ELA compared to 81% of White students. Only 2.5% of special education students met proficiency.

. . . Continues into High School

  • Baltimore Polytechnic Institute: 92.9% of white students are proficient in math but only 72% of black or African American students. There is no listing for students with special needs as only student groups with 10 or more are reported, meaning fewer than 30 students with special needs attend Poly.
  • Baltimore City College High School: 97.9% of white students meet proficiency in ELA but only 76.8% of black students do. Again, no reporting on students with special needs.
  • Western High School: 60% of white students are proficient in math while only 24.4% of black students are. There was no reporting on students with special needs.
  • Baltimore School for the Arts: 78.4% of white students meet math standards. Only 27.5% of black students do. You guessed it, still no reporting on students with special needs.

Special Education: FAIL

In recent years, there have been closures of charter schools that failed to meet the needs of special education students such as Banneker Blake.

But who is minding the store on traditional public schools?

In October 2018, there was a presentation to the School Board, the “Semi-Annual Special Education Update.”

The slides acknowledge the achievement gap, but only as a citywide average. The differences between specific schools are not listed, save for highlighting a few schools making progress.

Presenting only information on the average achievement gap of students with IEPs obscures the enormous gulfs in achievement at specific schools and fails to account for how very few students with special needs are represented in challenging academic programs and at schools with entrance criteria.

North Avenue seems to know it needs more data. In the same presentation, under “Strategies to Close the Achievement Gap for SWD [students with disabilities]” the slide set states that the district has a “Revised Academic Tool to capture trends within and across schools to inform school-based, CLN [community learning network] and district wide supports and professional development.”

If the tool has been developed, I wonder when data will be shared with parents, students, and the community?

The last comprehensive data update on special needs is from May 2018.

Heading Back to Court

After a headline-making winter in which dozens of schools closed for lack of heat, followed by starting the 2018-2019 school year with heat-related closures, the NAACP-LDF and ACLU announced they were re-opening the Bradford decision.

The reason: “To ensure that another generation of black and brown students in Baltimore are not held back from realizing their dreams because of unconstitutional and inequitable education funding.”

While the petition in support of Bradford mentions special education, it isn’t exclusively focused on the needs of those learners.

That’s the purview of another court case.

More than 30 years ago, the Maryland Disability Law Center filed suit in Vaughn G. et al. v. the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, alleging that city students weren’t receiving services to which they were entitled.

That lawsuit finally closed in 2012, perhaps too soon.

Next Steps

In June 2018 the board held an open policy forum to get parent, student, and community feedback on delayed equity policy – originally scheduled for adoption in spring 2018.

Months of silence followed with no follow-up to participants about what our comments were being used for, if anything.

City Schools has hired a director of equity, Tracey Durant. Dr. Durant is re-opening the conversation and a first-reader racial equity policy was presented to the Board on March 19, 2019.

Absent a miracle, or a new governor with political chutzpah (see also: miracle), it will probably be years before Bradford shakes any money loose from the tight-fisted leadership in Annapolis to say nothing of the city’s mayor.

Given scarce funds, City Schools is asking hard questions of charter operators – and they should be.

But will they turn that critical gaze upon traditional publics? Even the prestigious entrance-criteria schools?

I’m thrilled that, after so long, City Schools is finally moving to adopt an explicit equity policy. Only time will tell if it is worth more than the paper it is written on.

Policies are wonderful at virtue signaling, but the true test will be implementation and the hard choices it demands.

– Melissa Schober is a health policy specialist and Baltimore city schools advocate who lives in the Harwood neighborhood. A self-described “mom-with-overdeveloped-wonkiness,” her thoughts online can be found at @melissa_schober.


UPDATED: With additional thoughts posted yesterday by the author on Twitter:

Let me be clear: PARCC is a bad test that is mostly a proxy for family income quartile. In embracing a middle and high school choice process that is heavily reliant on standardized testing, @BaltCitySchools is largely reproducing socioeconomic privilege.

We don’t really have a school system. We have neighborhoods with safer schools and robust programming…and everywhere else. We act like availability is the same as accessibility even though that papers over the difference between your parent driving and schelpping on MTA.

Some schools are permitted to cut most supplies from their budget to retain teachers because everyone knows those parents will buy paper and whatnot, and use the annual fund. Others are not, and so lose staff in lean years.

Some schools have theatre and visual arts and others have a long term sub. Some schools have free after school programming and others do not. Some schools have an annual fund and/or gala and others do not, can not.

Yet we pretend that all children have access to high quality programming and as such that it is an even field for middle and high school entry. We lie to children, explicitly or by omission.

Yes, it was the personal as political that led me to write this. As the mom of a kid who is bright but not gifted but also has neurological challenges post ischemic stroke, I worry a lot about navigating a system in which already strong kids get most of the opportunities.

I think a lot about whether I’d send my 11 yr old on MTA to school based on my daily riding experiences and conclude I would not. So that means driving and all the costs associated to get her to a “good” school.

There are no clean hands choices. There is only my conscience to contend with, for my duty to her and my duty to be a moral person.

I used PARCC here because that’s what the city uses, and the state, to flog certain schools and justify closure (at least in part). What would I do for admission? I don’t know, exactly. But I think the current situation is untenable if were going to adopt an equity policy.

The current landscape reinforces a scarcity mindset too. It pits schools against each other for their tiny sliver of the pie. In this division and competition, we miss opportunities to smash narrow vessels and rebuild them as big tubs that hold all our children.

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