The Right to Education in Baltimore: Exploring Innovative Approaches
Proponents of the international right to education and the use of human rights instruments, such as the Abidjan Principles on the Right to Education, should be driven by people, for people. Furthering our understanding and use of these rights and instruments, requires bringing people together to learn about the successes and challenges different education systems face, from the perspective of the learners, practitioners, and communities of each system.
On October 16, 2019, national and international education advocates and practitioners came together in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, for a day of discussion and site visits at local schools. We wanted to hear from learners, teachers, union activists, education advocates, administrators, and community members to discuss the challenges facing students in Baltimore City Schools, and similarly situated districts and school environments, to foster dialogue and solidarity on initiatives and actions for strengthening public education systems and practices.
Alliances to Strengthen Public Education Systems
We started the day with a restorative circle, which is a strategy to develop relationships, build communities, and respond to conflicts and problems that arise. With restorative circles, everyone has an equal opportunity to speak and be heard.
With that approach in mind, we visited two local schools, one that has implemented restorative practices, Hampstead Hill Academy and another, Bard-Baltimore, an early college high school model. At each school, we heard from students, parents, staff and administrators about the history and experiences that lead to the adoption of models they use.
>> Learn more: This video shows restorative circles at Hampstead Hill Academy, where 6th graders shared the challenges they have overcome over the course of the school year.
“Education is a civil right,” Karen Webber, Director, Education and Youth Development Program at the Open Society Institute in Baltimore (OSI-Baltimore) states, as she opens the morning with an explanation of OSI-Baltimore’s approach to their work in education.
In Baltimore, long-term disinvestment in the public education system, along with the over criminalisation and over-use of punishment of black children in schools has led to major challenges. The response has been an emerging movement of community schools and several innovative local initiatives. Baltimore has a complex public education ecosystem, and the visit highlighted a few of these innovative approaches, including restorative practices to address racial and social inequities.
Alliances to Strengthen Public Education Systems
Youth representatives from Equal Education in South Africa, RED-Red de Estudios para la profundización Democrática in Chile and All-Africa Students Union in Ghana, as well as US-based organizations shared their experiences and work from their respective countries and from other parts of the US. This discussion illustrated that while all situations are unique, there are commonalities that open space for solidarity.
After the site visits, the day concluded with a look at city-wide approaches, with a presentation by the Baltimore City School Police, Chief Hamm, the newly elected chair of the Baltimore City Teachers’ Union, Cristina Duncan Evans, and the co-founder of the non-profit organization Holistic Life Foundation, Atman Smith.
Holistic Life provides programs on mindfulness, yoga and self-care to nurture the wellness of children and adults in underserved communities. Their program, which has gained national and even international attention for the impact it has had on local public Baltimore schools, uses a restorative model that integrates a mindfulness approach to addressing conflict as well as the chronic stress many Baltimore children experience. The program provides students with the techniques and tools to self-regulate their emotions and to deal with challenges without violence. It also provides schools with alternative ways to respond to conflict, without the immediate use of detention or suspension. The schools where the program has been implemented have seen dramatic reductions in the use of detention and suspensions.
Since 2016, Chief Hamm has instituted reforms, shifting from an enforcement approach in schools to a restorative and trauma responsive approach that focuses on restorative practices and building quality connected relationships with the students, founded on trust. The results have been a dramatic decrease in the number of school arrests, bringing the number from 900 in 2016 to 50 in school year 2018/2019. Dr. Frank Adamson, who joined the visit from California State University, Sacramento, asked: “What will it take to get to zero?” According to Chief Hamm, it will demand more investment in systems that support students beyond the classroom, such as healthcare, housing, as well as education.
Cristina Duncan Evans shared the work that the Baltimore City Teachers’ Union (BTU) has undertaken to challenge the systemic underfunding and state-wide disinvestment in public education and the role of BTU in local public education. For the first time in over 20 years, BTU has begun to approach these systemic deficiencies from a social justice lens, advocating for education reform initiatives in Baltimore City.
Lessons from School Visits and Collaborative Discussions
The day concluded with a presentation by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Dr. Boly Barry, about global trends in private actor involvement in education, and how resources, like those available through the mandate and the Abidjan Principles on the right to education can assist the work being done in Baltimore, and beyond.
Reflecting on the day, Karen Webber of OSI-Baltimore reminded us that “the dynamics of the city are reflected in the schools and changes in the schools can have a direct impact on the community.” The approaches highlighted throughout the day illustrate how the community, schools, teachers and families are working to improve the Baltimore public education system. It showed how transformative change requires multiple touch points, to restore relationships between the community and the school police force, by building resilience techniques and restorative practices and strengthening the collective voice of teachers, to name just a few.
Across each of the groups throughout the day, some key takeaways were heard:
· Keeping students in the classroom, through alternatives to detention and suspension, has decreased dropout rates and disrupts the school to prison pipeline
· Representation matters, having black men from the community as positive role models in the classroom, as teachers and other staff, administrators and officers, create alternative positive self-images/narratives/role models
· Having school police officers from and living within the community contribute to the relationship building component of restorative practices
· Sustainability of restorative practices requires school-wide integration and full training for all school staff and teachers
· Solidarity starts with understanding. Hearing and sharing experiences from different perspectives helps to connect local challenges with global trends.
In the spring of 2019, Karen Webber had joined a similar meeting in Oakland, California with local education activists from the region, organised with GI-ESCR, partners and academics. This was a key moment to connect local challenges, not only in the USA, but among the diverse group of allies from different regions, and to the global movement. Discussion focused on sharing experiences, to explore ways in which the Abidjan Principles can be a tool in their respective areas of work, and to establish initial networking connections.
These opportunities to meet, discuss and connect are just the beginning.
By Sarah French, Campaigner for Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and Jennifer Rigg, Executive Director of Global Campaign for Education-US.