After driving for almost an hour from her home in Montgomery County, Henriette Taylor steps into one of Baltimore City’s most impoverished neighborhoods. It has the city’s second highest gun-related homicide rate and its fourth highest juvenile arrest rate. The McCullough Housing Projects, frequently featured on television show, The Wire, sit on one side of the street, and on the other side of the street is where she works, The Historic Samuel-Coolridge Taylor Elementary School.
She calls the students of the Upton/Druid Heights area her children and their families her family. It is hard for her to describe what an average day is like, because an average day does not exist in this profession.
“The beautiful thing and the most challenging thing is that you can have a day planned where you can have all of these meetings and you’re gonna do this report and you’re gonna write this grant, and a parent comes in and is in tears because the job they have worked so hard to get, they’ve been fired, or that they found out they were going to be convicted,” Taylor said.
Taylor is just one person in the growing coalition of people and organizations throughout Baltimore City trying a different approach to eliminate achievement disparities among low-income children. They call it community schooling. Baltimore City has transformed over 50 of its schools into community schools over the last 11 years.
Unlike traditional schools, community schools take a holistic approach to learning by ensuring that students’ basic needs are met. They offer physical and mental health services, food pantries, clothing supplies, mentoring opportunities and other resources designed to tackle the unique challenges that many low-income students face.
Taylor is The Historic Samuel Coolridge Taylor Elementary School’s community school coordinator. That means it is her job to make sure that these needs are met and that the lack thereof does not hinder students’ educational experience. Community school coordinators pull this off by forming partnerships with community support groups.
Promise Heights, created by the University Of Maryland School Of Social Work, is a key organization in the local, community school movement. It has united nearly 30 community support groups which now collaborate and offer their services to community schools specifically in the Upton/Druid Heights area.
“We’re working with these partners to develop a whole continuum of services from the very beginning of life going all the way to try to get kids ready for college or career and each organization has really a role to play in terms of that pipeline of support or services,” Executive Director of Promise Heights Bronwyn Mayden said.
Promise Heights partners with organizations such as The United Way of Central Maryland, B’more for Healthy Babies and the Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle. Promise Heights also has some of its own community support groups including Parent University.
Although community schools are designed children in mind, the structure is careful not to leave parents out of the picture. Parent University is a seven-week parenting class designed to help parents better understand their children’s developmental growth and how to respond to it.
“It was originally six weeks and during that time we do a community breakfast, we do singing, we do book time, we do play, and we do a parent group, where we offer developmental education to the parents,” Parent University Curriculum Designer Kyla Liggett-Creel said.
The program doubles as a support group. Parents are able to connect and form bonds that the area’s high crime rate would normally not allow.
“We have a very high risk community which leads to a lot of parents isolating because they feel their children are in danger,” Liggett-Creel said. “There’s also you can’t have your kids outside a lot because of the shooting. So breakfast we have them sit together so they can build that relationship.”
Child Therapist and Counselor Kizzy Pittrell says parental involvement plays a major role in children’s academic performance.
“I think that when children see that you’re engaged and you’re motivated and you’re supporting their education, that they in turn will do well,” Pittrell said.
Pittrell says it is good for parents to get engaged in their child’s education as soon as possible.
“In terms of early childhood, once children have the support that they need early on, that pretty much lays the foundation for later development and what happens as they grow,” Pittrell said. “Early on they definitely need that support.”
Taylor recalls how when she first started working at the school, there were curtains that covered the bullet holes in her window. She says on windy days the curtains would sway back and forth from the draft that snuck in.
“I think about the opportunities that my daughter has,” Taylor, who resides in Montgomery County, said. “She’s in a Spanish immersion program. She’s got Chromebooks and laptops. She plays the cello. My school has 29 computers and I think they were [purchased in] 1995. They still have floppy disks.”
Taylor says that the lack of funding often leaves the school’s leadership having to choose which necessities they can do without for the year. Among the many printed out documents on her desk is a small, hand written note from a teacher who wants to take her students on field-trips throughout the year, but cannot for this very reason. Taylor says one of her latest projects is finding free field trips for students to go on.
Taylor says that since the city did not become this way overnight, the problems that it faces will not be solved overnight.
Jessica Shiller, assistant professor of education at Towson University, says that the problems that schools like The Historic Samuel Coolridge Taylor have are the result of years of systematic inequality.
“Historically, the cities look the way they do because we’ve had a set of policies in our country that have kind of promoted and re-advised segregation,” Shiller said. “Redlining was one of them where folks of color couldn’t get bank loans to buy homes and because of that, they were confined to where they live in the city.”
Shiller says the G.I. Bill of the 1940s, originally passed only for white veterans, upheld the concept of redlining. The bill allowed white families to move out of urban areas to the suburbs and many large corporations followed them. Property taxes in these areas, which are used to pay for public schools, decreased tremendously.
“So what you have is a situation in which cities are classically, year, after year underfunded, because they don’t have the tax base to support the needs of the school,” Shiller said. “That funding most resides in the affluent communities in the suburbs who actually don’t need that funding because so much is provided outside of school for their families.”
This is the system that community schools and their partner organizations have been working to break down.
One of the things that the Family League of Baltimore, the organization that started the Baltimore City community school movement 15 years ago, does is try to work with Baltimore City Public Schools to realign funds so that schools like The Historic Samuel Coolridge Taylor can receive more money said Heather Naviasky, program manager of community and school engagement.
According to a survey conducted by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, the efforts of the community schools and their partners is beginning to pay off. The community school movement has improved several areas of students’ educational experience.
Elementary school students who attended the extracurricular activities provided by their school’s partners during the 2014-2015 school year were 31.6 percent less likely to be chronically absent while middle school students who participated were 77.3 percent less likely. The report also showed that parents have better perceptions of their children’s schools. Community school parents’ response to whether school staff works closely with them to meet their children’s needs was 4 percent higher than that of non-community school parents.
However, there are still goals that the schools would like to meet such as improved scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests.
In addition to her daily work tasks, and unplanned, random sit-downs with local families, Taylor is currently working on several other projects. They include increasing free medical and dental opportunities, planning an eight week anti-bullying session, creating solutions to lower absences and organizing a trauma education class.
“I always feel like I’m not doing enough and you’ll hear that from all community school coordinators,” Taylor said. “We don’t get to leave the day and say okay, everything’s done.”
Taylor knows she has a long road ahead of her, but is not discouraged.
“What I think is funny is that people are like, ‘oh now the community strategy, it’ll solve all that in a year.,’ Taylor said. Well if we do could all that in a year, we would win the Nobel Peace Prize.”
She continues to have high hopes for her community.
“That I’m not needed anymore, that’s my big dream,” Taylor said.