A CITY WIDE LISTENING CAMPAIGN: WHY AND WHY NOW
Toward the end of 2013, we at the Fund for Educational Excellence spent a lot of time discussing the reforms that Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools) had implemented over the past several years and how they had changed the trajectory of the district. Following the arrival of Dr. Andrés Alonso as CEO in 2007, the district de-centralized budgeting for schools, pushing responsibility and accountability for programming and spending decisions out to school leaders. City Schools developed a set of standards for teacher, school leader, and school effectiveness to define what excellence looks like. A team of trained reviewers now uses these standards to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each school. The district also took up the cause of a coalition of community, faith-based, and parent organizations, working with the Mayor’s Office to orchestrate an overhaul of City Schools’ crumbling school buildings. Last year, state legislators passed a bill that assured the system the first one billion dollars in funding for the 21st Century Buildings Initiative. The district worked hand-in-hand with the Baltimore Teachers Union to develop and implement a new compensation system for teachers that rewards them for the things they do to improve instruction and make learning gains with students, rather than seniority and course credits earned. All of these were big changes for City Schools, and they were scaled up quickly based on the promise they held for positive impact on Baltimore students.
While working to support City Schools’ reforms in a variety of ways, it struck us that we did not really know how families and community members had experienced these efforts. This prompted us to embark on an intensive study of Baltimore residents’ views on our public schools.
The first half of 2014 seemed like the right moment in time to dig into attitudes about education in Baltimore City. After several years on an upward trajectory, student learning gains had plateaued. According to a poll commissioned by the Fund in September 2013, just behind jobs and the economy, the issue Baltimore voters and Baltimore City Public Schools parents most wanted to see addressed was public education. Sixty-five percent (65%) of voters and fifty-five percent (55%) of City Schools’ parents were dissatisfied with the quality of education children receive in public schools.
The district was also in the midst of a major transition in leadership—long-time CEO Dr. Andrés Alonso departed in July 2013, and the Board of Commissioners was searching for a new leader to build on the progress made in the district. During a similar period of transition in 2011, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF) undertook a community study that was helpful in forging a collaborative relationship between the communities in Duval County, Florida, and the new leader of that district. Inspired by JPEF’s One by One campaign, we kicked off our own Community Voices on Baltimore Schools listening campaign at the beginning of 2014 with the twin goals of:
- Engaging community members across the city in defining priorities for our public schools, and
- Bringing those community-generated priorities to the attention of Dr. Gregory Thornton as he started in his new role as City Schools’ leader.
By design, our aim was to reach a demographically representative sample of Baltimore residents. It is our belief that public education affects everyone in the city in some way, whether or not they choose to send their children to City Schools. We also broke out discussion themes by income bracket in order to explore the concerns of lower-income participants. This was of particular interest and importance to us, because City Schools’ student population is disproportionately low-income. Over the course of four months in 2014, we heard from 859 Baltimore residents representing all 55 community statistical areas in Baltimore City through a series of intimate conversations about schools and neighborhoods.