Impacting Education from all Angles

Expanding access to high quality learning and equitable opportunity for all students takes many forms. At the Fund for Educational Excellence, our unique role working with the Baltimore City Public Schools and our community’s students, families, funders and organizations allows us to take many approaches towards this work. We’re managing programs, matching philanthropic support to system priorities, researching issues with community input, and identifying resources for students and families based on community-identified needs. Here is a look at a few of many programs managed and/or created by the Fund to expand equity and opportunity for all students in Baltimore – what they are, how we help, and where they’re headed.

Chicago Parent Program:
The Chicago Parent Program (ChiPP), a nationally recognized 12-week program for parents with children ages two to seven, promotes good behavior and educational success for children through empowered parenting. With the support of trained facilitators and the ChiPP curriculum, groups of parents meet each week to discuss parenting techniques, participate in role-play parenting scenarios, share experiences and explore ways to better connect with their children and schools.

The Fund helped bring ChiPP to Baltimore four years ago as a pilot/research project in partnership with The Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, and is now directly managing the program in 11 City Schools. We have been thrilled by parents’ interest in the program. During the three-year pilot program, 65% of eligible parents in the targeted schools registered for ChiPP, a higher rate than in other cities across the country. This year, our programs are fully enrolled, with parents consistently reporting increased confidence in connecting with their child’s school and talking about their child’s behavior. To learn more about ChiPP, contact danielles@ffee.org.

School Choice Workshops:
In 2017, the Fund spoke with 400 City Schools parents and students about their experiences with the district’s school choice process – how students and families choose which middle and high school they would like to attend – for our Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools report.  One of the biggest concerns we heard from parents was a lack of clarity and support throughout the school choice process.

Last year, in collaboration with parents, we created a School Choice workshop that gives parents the information they need to navigate the often confusing school process. Any group of three of more parents, school representatives, or community organizations can request a workshop. We do the rest – delivering an immersive group workshop covering timelines, choices available, school rankings, composite scores and more. This year, our materials were translated into Spanish and we expanded our team of facilitators.

All workshop resources are also available online – find them here! To schedule a workshop in your community, email danielles@ffee.org.

Bmore Ready – College Readiness:
Created and managed by the Fund in response to a need identified by parents and families, Bmore Ready is a one-stop, online college readiness resource
designed specifically for City Schools students by the people who know the process best – City Schools graduates currently enrolled in college. The Bmore Ready website and workshops offer helpful information and first-hand video advice from recent graduates on how to identify, apply and transition to college. Bmore Ready is an outgrowth of the Fund’s conversations with families as part of its 2016 report on college readiness: Building a Bright Future; Understanding College Readiness in Baltimore City Public Schools.

This year, we’re emphasizing the importance of early preparation for the application process. Most importantly, we’re demystifying the often-cumbersome processes of applying for financial aid using the FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid) forms. We will be working as one of City Schools partners, helping to support and get the word out about upcoming drop-in FAFSA fill-out sessions for students and families. Stay tuned as the sessions get scheduled! FAFSA applications are due March 1, 2019!

If you’re interested in learning more, getting involved or staying in the loop as we move these initiatives forward, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or email info@ffee.org to continue the conversation!

Finding Books with Diverse Characters: It’s Harder than You Think. The problem, the need, and how you can help

By Angelique Jessup, Ph.D., Program Director, Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading/
Fund for Educational Excellence

“Nearly impossible.” “Like finding a needle in a haystack.” “Frustrating.”

These are just some of the comments the Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading (GLR) and the Fund for Educational Excellence recently heard from colleagues and partners discussing the availability of children’s books with diverse characters. While this conversation is not new to the field, a recent New York Times op ed, “Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time,” echoed both the difficulty and frustration we experienced in our own recent book search.

Research shows that seeing characters that represent ones reality sparks connectivity and deepens interests and curiosity. Children of color are no different. However, GLR—a program of the Fund for Educational Excellence that aims to make sure all Baltimore City Public Schools students are reading on grade level by third grade—has experienced firsthand the issues outlined in the op ed: finding children’s books that show racially and culturally diverse characters is incredibly difficult. This needs to change.

As part of a new project (in partnership with Improving Education and City Schools) with six elementary schools designed to improve family engagement, increase summer learning, and build home libraries, we set out to find appropriate books to give every first grade student to encourage reading at home.

The task seemed simple enough: find a fun and engaging book for first grade students that included diverse characters. After hours of searching with incredible partners at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and City Schools, a frustrating truth surfaced: books that meet these criteria are few and far between. Our dilemma deepened as we expanded our search for bilingual books where we found an even starker dearth of options representing diverse characters. Why is it so hard? According to a February, 2017 NPR Code Switch article, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin found that only 12% of children’s books published in 2016 had characters who were people of color.

The call for more diversity in children’s books is getting louder and stronger. We were certainly able to find books that delved into historical topics like Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and how people of color have consistently overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. But, there just aren’t many books featuring diverse characters that are simply having fun and engaging in day to day life. 

Don’t get me wrong, these historical stories are incredibly important and need to be told to children (and as an African American mother of two young children, I am deeply grateful for these books). However, children of color deserve an array of books that span all topics—from silly to serious—and see illustrations that look like them and their communities.

We are not alone in this thinking. Groups like We Need Diverse Books and many others are pushing for quality books that are diverse in characters, topics and reading levels. GLR and the Fund are proud to be adding our voice to this call for greater diversity as an important step in encouraging reading for our City Schools students.

The good news is that while there are not nearly enough, diverse books do exist. With the help of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, GLR recently curated a list of diverse books for our 37 Little Free Libraries located throughout the city. Please check it out, and send us the names of other books that we should add to the list.

While you’re there, consider donating one of the books to a Little Free Library and be part of a movement that has given away over 60,000 books in the last 18 months to children living in book deserts. Or just buy one for a child in your life to help show publishers that the demand for diverse books is as real as the need to make sure all children can find themselves in the pages of a book.

Interested in learning more about GLR, how you can get involved, or other projects supporting children’s education at the Fund for Educational Excellence? Visit the GLR website or contact me at angeliquej@ffee.org.

Families in Baltimore City Need a Centralized School Choice Hub

by Corrie Schoenberg, Senior Program Director

In 2016, the Fund for Educational Excellence spoke with more than 400 Baltimore City Public Schools parents and students about their experiences with the middle and high school choice process. What we heard is outlined in Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools, the third in a series of reports bringing parent and student voices to bear on how Baltimore’s public schools can work better for those they serve.

During the Calculated Choices listening campaign, parents talked about how confounding the school choice process can feel. Many didn’t understand how to complete the City Schools choice application, particularly the importance of ranking the five schools they were applying to in order of preference. Others expressed confusion about how charter applications relate (or don’t) to the City Schools application. With the choice season for SY18-19 winding down, now is a good time to talk about streamlining the process to better serve parents and students. We need to move to one online school choice hub.

Without a centralized hub, families are left juggling multiple applications, requirements, and timelines. Consider what a mother and son intent on maximizing school choice options might have to navigate. Let’s say this student is interested in the Ingenuity Project, an advanced math and science program offered at Poly, and plans to apply to City College, Dunbar, Bard, and MerVo as other options on his City Schools choice application. He also wants to apply to three charter schools – Green Street Academy, Coppin Academy, and City Neighbors High School. Here is what this family is facing:

  • Ingenuity requires a completely separate application due in December – a month before the City Schools application deadline — and administers its own admissions assessment in January.
  • Bard requires an interview and writing sample during a Bard-run interview day in November, December, or January.
  • Each of the three charter schools requires its own application with its own deadline and conducts its own lottery to select students.

This student and his mother are now managing six different application processes.

It’s easy to understand why parents are confused about the school choice process. Different choice elements have been pieced together and added to each other for decades. What sounds simple – in middle and high school, City Schools students can choose their schools – is, in practice, simply not.

We strongly encourage City Schools, including all of Baltimore’s charters, to band together and establish one common online application and one lottery for the benefit of all Baltimore City students and their families.

We know this kind of system is possible. The District of Columbia Public Schools and nearly all of Washington, DC’s charter schools made this move several years ago with www.MySchoolDC.org. Public school parents in DC go to that website to apply to up to twelve schools – district or charter – and rank their choices. School profiles are also located on MySchoolDC.org.

City Schools and all of our city’s charters can and should do this as well.

As we push for this change, we recognize that parents and students need help navigating the choice system we have right now. This year, the Fund is offering a new school choice workshop to any group of three or more City Schools parents, available upon request. For more information, please email corries@ffee.org.

We owe it to our families to simplify the choice process so that all students can find and apply to the schools that best meet their needs. Make your voices heard and help advocate for this necessary change. Share this article on social media, contact district and school leaders, and spread the word.

Helping City Schools students BMore Ready for college

by Danielle Staton, Program Manager for Analysis and Engagement

Through our recent studies, we’ve had the opportunity to hear from hundreds of City Schools students and parents about what it means to be college ready. While academic preparation is top on that list, students and parents also spoke a lot about the need for reliable, relevant information around applying, financing, and transitioning to college. Designed specifically for City Schools students, our new BMore Ready website addresses these issues.

Throughout the planning and development of the website, input and feedback from students and families was always at the forefront of my mind—inevitably, so was my own college experience. In many ways BMore Ready is a response to my seventeen-year-old self, eager to attend college but navigating the process almost entirely on my own. Like many of the students in City Schools, I was the first person in my family to attend a four-year college. My parents always encouraged college attendance, but having never applied to college themselves, didn’t truly understand how to help me through the process. BMore Ready is the type of resource I wish had been available to my family and me. If, in high school, I could have watched a video of a peer highlighting all of the benefits of taking AP courses, I’m positive I would have taken more AP courses than I did. If there had been a site highlighting college readiness events in my area, I’m sure I would have gone to several of them.

One of the main things that sets BMore Ready apart from other college prep resources is the inclusion of videos from our City Schools student ambassadors. BMore Ready is truly a place where City Schools students and families can see and hear from people like themselves. We spent several months recruiting a diverse group of City Schools graduates to serve as student ambassadors and share their experiences and advice on the process of preparing, applying and transitioning to college. Their personal stories offer a wide range of perspectives and insights. We want to thank the City Schools’ Student Media Team and students in the Recording Arts and Media Production (RAMP) Program at Frederick Douglass High School for helping us record and produce the ambassador interviews featured on BMore Ready. These videos cover a number of topics, from advice on deciding what courses to take in high school to learning new time management skills to handling culture shock on a college campus. Please take a minute to browse through our video gallery and hear what some of our ambassadors have to say.

BMore Ready is one piece of a collective push – that includes greater access to Advanced Placement courses, college advising, FAFSA help, etc. – to increase readiness for college here in Baltimore. Our hope is that City Schools students and families see the BMore Ready website as a valuable college and career readiness resource. Please help us get the word out by sharing information about BMore Ready with students and families, as well as the organizations or community groups you work with. Please also follow BMore Ready on Twitter at @BMore_Ready and on Facebook at BMore Ready. If we spread the word, we can help every City Schools student who desires to attend college access the knowledge and resources to do so.

Kirwan Commission: Accounting for Poverty in Education Funding

Last school year, our City came together in a tremendous push to close a $130M funding gap for Baltimore City Public Schools. Because of the voices of our students, parents, teachers, principals, and community leaders, our elected officials at the State and City level provided enough funding to reduce the gap to $30M and avoid the worst of the anticipated instructional and facilities impacts. But a $30M gap still has an impact on teaching and learning and conditions in schools, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Baltimore City Public Schools students and families were once again forced to accept less.

The reality is that the funds restored this year — and committed for the next three years — to minimize the gap are simply a short-term reprieve. We still have to solve the much larger issue of equitable education funding in the State of Maryland, and the next move lies with the Kirwan Commission. The commission, so named for its chair, Dr. Brit Kirwan, the former University of Maryland System Chancellor, was established in 2016 by the General Assembly. It is charged with recommending changes to the State’s education funding formula and will release its proposals this December.

While the Kirwan recommendations have not yet been made they may be informed by a report from a national firm, APA Consulting, concluding that Maryland should invest an additional $2.6 billion in its public schools. Most notably, the report advises increasing the State’s base per-pupil funding amount from $6,900 to $10,800, while decreasing the additional funding amounts – or weights – allotted for students in need of additional supports.

This recommendation to decrease funding weights for the students who need the most support should alarm all of us working to improve educational outcomes for our most vulnerable students in districts across Maryland, and especially here in Baltimore City. Daily, our students confront food insecurity and housing instability, mental and physical health challenges and violence– the effects of the concentrated poverty in which many of them live.

Inadequately addressed, these effects all come to bear in our public schools. Our educators strive to meet our students where they are – too often, where they are is hungry, tired, stressed, and sometimes traumatized. That’s part of why it costs more to serve our students. Increasing the base per-pupil funding for each student without also increasing the weights for students in need of additional support fails to recognize the significant impact of poverty in a child’s development and will not be enough to provide a truly equitable education.

The failure to fully close last year’s budget gap sent a message to City Schools students, unquestionably the most at-risk, high-need population in the State. It’s time we stopped saying to those who need us the most that they should accept less. The Kirwan Commission will issue its recommendations in December. Let’s make the case for our students to receive the funding they need to receive the type of education every child deserves.