Three weeks into a new school year, I still smile at the cartoon-themed book bags that have rejoined my morning commute. Optimism's sneaker-clad army has returned. It is a welcome sight. But as I think about the future of education in Baltimore, my greatest hopes lie not necessarily with these bright-eyed youngsters but with the rowdy bunch, the nonconformists — the pupils who don't always do as they're told. These are the kids who can keep us honest and may be best equipped to push for change. Let me explain.
Now in our 30s, my friends and I still tell stories about coming up in Baltimore City Public Schools. Many of us who did so in the '80s and '90s saw a few things we wish we hadn't: first-floor windows covered in metal grating, fistfights that could matriculate into something deadlier, a new teacher's enthusiasm slowly hardening into cynicism.
Even as a child, I knew that many of the buildings that passed for schools looked more like prisons. So how did I respond? By obeying the rules, all of them. And it worked. As other students mouthed off, threw tantrums and were sent home, I was given good marks, access to magnet and study abroad programs, and, eventually, scholarships — lots and lots of scholarships, nearly $250,000 worth between college and graduate school.
I can't help but wonder what might have happened if the money and attention that were heaped on me had been more evenly distributed. I could never have beaten some of my classmates at football or lacrosse, which was fine, but it seems wrong that education, too, is often a winner-take-all sport. I was a very good student, but I stood out even more because I didn't fit the stereotype of an angry, inner-city kid.
Years after earning my diploma, I started to think that, considering the sometimes subpar teaching and crumbling facilities, my decision to do what I was told was the strange one, and that the kids who rebelled did so not just because they were unruly but because they saw through the charade.
Then Andrés Alonso became CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. "Kids come as is," he insisted, "and it's our job to engage them." This sounded like a rallying cry to me, so a year and a half into his tenure, I went to work for the school system, joining a team that managed communications and community relations.
That's how I met Alice Sheehan and other students from Peter French's social studies class at City Neighbors Charter School. Tired of awful cafeteria food, they took samples of the meals served during lunch to a school board meeting and offered them to board members. The commissioners declined, but the middle-schoolers' efforts spurred improvements across the system and drew attention in Washington, D.C. In 2009, I watched as Alice testified before members of Congress considering reauthorization of federal child nutrition programs.
By then, I'd already met Dayvon Love. According to a profile of Dayvon that ran on "State of the Re:Union," a nationally syndicated radio program, before joining Forest Park High School's Baltimore Urban Debate League team, he wasn't very interested in school and "well on his way to falling through the cracks." But a few years later, he and partner Deven Cooper turned the college debate scene on its head by focusing their arguments on the racially biased practices they saw within the debate community. In 2008, they became the first African-American national champions in the Cross Examination Debate Association's history. Dayvon went on to co-found Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a local social justice think tank, and to run for City Council.
While Dayvon campaigned, I watched as high school students vetted other current and aspiring politicians. The Baltimore Intersection program turns teenagers into community organizers. Executive Director Zeke Berzoff-Cohen says he looks for bright kids who have been identified as at-risk. Most have had some history of behavior problems. But last August, they successfully hosted the only student-run mayoral candidates forum I've ever heard of.
Today, some of the kids who would have been written off as "troublemakers" when I was in school have found their niche in projects or programs that help them speak from their own experience, think critically, gain an audience and effect change. These are lessons worth getting out of bed for. This is empowerment.
There are many ways to evaluate educational quality. Over the next few years, much of that conversation will involve Common Core State Standards, set to roll out across Maryland in 2013; teacher evaluations; and, of course, standardized test scores. But the real test is what we do with the misfits. It's when the schools themselves consistently produce education's most incisive and effective critics that I'll know real reform is under way.
I'll discuss this idea as one of 16 presenters during the Ignite Education speaker series Sept. 20 at City Neighbors High School. You can find more information at http://www.cityneighborsfoundation.org.
Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. You can reach him by email at email@example.com and Twitter: @LionelBMD.