A Reflection of my Summer Internship at the Fund for Educational Excellence

If I had to describe my summer internship at the Fund for Education Excellence in one word, it would be “confidence.” Through piloting a new community mapping project, revamping the School Choice presentation process, and meeting with stakeholders and community members, my experience this summer helped me to build confidence in who I am becoming as a person, what I am passionate about, and where I want to take my career in education.

Being raised in a low-income single-parent household in Baltimore City, finding and following your passion was treated as a privilege. As a result, when I graduated in May and watched my friends heading to medical school or Fortune 500 companies, I felt guilty for my decision to pursue my interest in education. Could I help to bring my family out of poverty working in the nonprofit sector? Could I really make a difference in the education system? My summer internship completely changed my perspective.

Over the course of nine weeks, I co-led two major projects. First, I and two staff members worked to identify and map community assets in the Sandtown-Winchester community, highlighting important community leaders and centers that will be used as internal contacts for the Fund to have a deeper level of engagement. We canvassed the neighborhood and talked to a variety of leaders including those from an Enoch Pratt branch library and Safe Streets, a grassroots organization that strives to prevent gun violence. The experience taught me the importance of conducting and publishing research and the importance of sharing community input and voices.

I also helped redesign the School Choice Guide presentation, which serves to assist parents and students in better understanding and navigating the school choice process. After seeking input from City Schools’ families and students, the goal of the project was to make the current presentation more digestible to parents, guardians, and students. I helped to reorganize the presentation so it was more comprehensible and interactive. I enjoyed the research process and the opportunity to improve my research skills and realized that I am particularly interested in promoting educational policies with the potential to give students an effective and equitable education.

Lastly, the Fund exposed me to a diverse pool of connections and resources. I have met with community leaders from City Hall to Baltimore City Public School System that offered career pathway, secondary education, and self-care advice. From learning about Doctorate in Education (EdD) programs to the importance of self-care, these connections have helped me to better understand the endless possibilities that exist in the education field.

My career goal is to research, develop, and advocate for educational policies that enhance the lives of students in marginalized communities. This internship has already proven to be one of the most invaluable experiences in the start of my career in education because it emphasized being an organized, flexible, and creative problem solver and provided the resources and mentorship to improve my skills needed to work on educational issues. I am grateful for the Fund’s opportunities that have helped me to become more confident in myself and my passions in the sphere of education.

Fourth Annual Heart of the School Awards Recap

On Monday, May 20th over 550 principals, teachers, parents, students, and corporate and community leaders packed the Hippodrome Theatre for the Heart the School Awards, the annual event celebrating Baltimore City Public Schools principals for their hard work and dedication to their students, staff and communities.

2019 marked the highest-attended Heart of the School Awards to date! Thank you to everyone who was able to join us and ensure that principals feel as valued and appreciated as they are!

Heart of the School Award Winners and Honorees

Five standout leaders were honored, chosen out of more than 500 community nominations for creating school communities where students are inspired to learn; teachers are valued, celebrated, and supported; parents are engaged and recognized as the assets they are to the development of their child; and student outcomes are improving. Each will receive $2,500 to spend on their schools.

  • Patricia Burrell– North Bend Elementary/Middle School
  • Francesca Gamber– Bard Early College High School
  • Chad Kramer– Patterson Park Public Charter School
  • Zulema Sockwell Moore– William S. Baer School
  • Danielle Tillman-Cromartie– Harford Heights Elementary School

Click here to read more about the winners and here to watch the videos screened during the event showing each winner in action at their schools.
Five Honorees were also recognized, each receiving $1,000 for their schools.

  • Corey Basmajian– Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School
  • Mark Gaither– Wolfe Street Academy
  • Diya Hafiz-Slayton– Brehms Lane Public Charter School
  • Cathy Miles– Abbottston Elementary School
  • Jael Samuel– Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School

Congratulations to all winners and honorees!

2019 Heart of the School Fund Update

Proceeds from the Heart of the School Awards support the Heart of the School Fund – the year-round program delivering grants to principals for school enhancements such as musical instruments, school plays, field trips and even community gardens. Thanks to Baltimore’s support and that of our amazing sponsors, the Heart of the School Fund has awarded more than $350,000 across 89 grants over the past three years to principals.

The Heart of the School Fund will again receive applications starting in July. Spread the word to principals in your networks! Learn more about the Heart of the School Fund here.

2019 Heart of the School Principal Raffle

Thanks to the generous donations from individuals and businesses across Baltimore, we created prize packages that principals in attendance at the Heart of the School Awards could enter to win. In total, these prize packages are worth more than $8,500 and included Ravens and Orioles tickets, restaurant gift cards, tickets to local theatres, and more. Congratulations to all of our lucky winners!


To learn more about the Heart of the School Awards and Heart of the School Fund, visit heartoftheschoolawards.org.

Five Years Later: A Look at the Impact of the Fund’s Reports

Over the past five years, the Fund has created reports that examine the Baltimore City Public School system, hearing from more than 1,600 students, parents, teachers and community members and incorporating their ideas into recommendations for systemic improvements. We have issued reports on school choice, college readiness, community priorities, and our most recent focus – career & technical education (CTE).

The Fund’s independent, experience-based perspective coupled with a commitment to elevate student and family voices in these discussions results in practical, actionable recommendations. As we’ve written about previously, community perspectives are required to truly understand whether reforms are having their intended impact.”

Our reports have spurred the creation of new programs in and expansion of existing programs and resources to school communities in underserved parts of the city, which in turn has improved equity of access to rigorous academic offerings. Our recommendations are driving improvements. Here’s how:

City Speaks: Community Voices on Baltimore Schools (2014) documented our city-wide listening campaign that engaged 859 participants in defining priorities for City Schools. The wide ranging ideas heard in conversations across Baltimore City illustrated what Baltimore residents most wanted for students, including skilled teachers, welcoming school environments, more course offerings and enhanced preparation for college and career.

Impact: Our findings in City Speaks informed our future reports and brought to light the need to incorporate community perspectives into the work of the Fund and City Schools. The experiences and perspectives of those closest to schools (e.g., students, parents, educators, and community members) have driven the issues we have prioritized for analysis ever since.

Building a Bright Future: Understanding College Readiness in Baltimore City Public Schools (2015) examined college readiness in City Schools through focus groups with 225 students, recent graduates, and parents. Results showed that being prepared for college requires rigorous academic preparation, as well as support in social/emotional development, college guidance, and financial literacy. One of our key findings and recommendations: students needed more information and guidance, earlier in the process.

Impact: Building a Bright Future resulted in new programs, resources, and a reinvigorated commitment from the district to supporting college readiness.

  • We partnered with students to develop the Bmore Ready website, which provides guidance on the application process and financial considerations, along with reflections on unanticipated challenges many first-generation students and students of color face when they go to college. More than 1,600 students and families have used the site over the last two years.
  • Before this report, Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings were concentrated in a handful of primarily entrance criteria high schools. Our recommendation to expand access has supported the district’s push to offer AP in at least 25 schools. Most high schools now offer at least one AP course, and many offer several to their students.
  • The report helped drive improvements in access to Algebra I in 8th grade that support college preparation. Passing Algebra I in 8th grade is a key indicator of college readiness; City Schools has substantially increased access to more students and more schools with a focus on expanded access to African-American students.

Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools (2016) featured focus groups with more than 400 students and parents about the school choice process. We asked them what was important to them about a school and how they go about finding what is important to them. Discussions revealed that school choice in City Schools often felt like a black box to parents – the process is managed by the central office, but the information parents receive is largely dependent on communications from their child’s current school. We found that school choice, as implemented here in Baltimore City, amplified inequities: the majority of Gifted and Advanced Learning (GAL) classes were available primarily in more affluent communities. Aside from the academic benefit, GAL courses give students an advantage in selecting and being accepted to Baltimore’s top high schools. This inequity makes access to top high schools (and courses) more difficult for students experiencing poverty.

Impact: Recommendations in Calculated Choices have driven expanded access to opportunity and additional guidance throughout the choice process.

  • After our recommendation to expand GAL sites to more communities, the district did just that. More students and more communities, regardless of wealth, now have access to advanced and specialized courses.
  • The Ingenuity Project, which provides an advanced math and science program to middle and high school students in several schools, opened a new site in West Baltimore as a direct result of this report.
  • The Fund has offered school choice workshops, co-created with a school counselor and a City Schools parent, for the past two years. More than 250 parents and students participated in these workshops during the Fall 2018 choice season.

Broken Pathways: The Cracks in Career and Technical Education in Baltimore City Public Schools (2019), our most recent report, gives voice to more than 140 former CTE students who were promised “a leg up toward an in-demand, well-paid career.” Students’ experiences too often do not align with that promise. This report reveals an inflexible program lacking hands-on experiences and career advising, and makes practical recommendations for restructuring CTE to better support students.

Impact: As with all our reports, we have presented the findings to District and city leadership, and dozens of community partners, with more being scheduled. (You can schedule a briefing by contacting Sydneys@ffee.org). The district has been concurrently completing an internal audit of CTE during our production of this report. We look forward to opportunities to partner with them in developing solutions to the challenges identified in our report and the audit.

Interested in learning more? Contact us at info@ffee.org.

Our New Report on Career & Tech Ed in Baltimore City Public Schools Calls for Significant Restructuring to Improve Student Outcomes

While Baltimore City Public Schools describes career and technical education (CTE) as giving students “a leg up toward an in-demand, well-paid career,” students report struggling to navigate an inflexible program lacking promised hands-on experiences and career advising. Many who successfully complete CTE programs earn poverty-level wages six years after graduating from high school.

Those are just some of the conclusions in the report we released today: Broken Pathways: The Cracks in Career and Technical Education in Baltimore City Public Schools.

Reports produced by the Fund take an honest look at systems and issues with a significant impact on City School students’ access to an excellent education. Our goal is to shine a light on what works, what doesn’t and what is required to create the environment where all students can succeed. In the process, we bring student, family and community voices to policy discussions – enlisting their perspectives and sharing their ideas for progress.

Broken Pathways: The Cracks in Career and Technical Education in Baltimore City Public Schools is the product of individual interviews with almost 140 former CTE students and current teachers. The “bottom line” recommendation is that the district should restructure CTE in order to provide students with experiences and training that will lead to meaningful careers and wages.

Report Findings

More than 9,500 Baltimore City public high school students – 44% of the high school population – are enrolled in CTE. According to the district, CTE provides students with “rigorous academic courses and….work-based learning opportunities, including job shadowing, mentoring with industry professionals or internships.”

Yet, 67% of the students interviewed reported an annual salary of less than $12,200. A 2016 Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) study we cite in Broken Pathways shows those who successfully complete a CTE program earn an annual median income of under $13,000 six years after high school graduation. 

Student and teacher voices in the report describe a program in need of an overhaul, with flawed implementation and structure.

Our interviews reveal that there is minimal career-related advising and little exposure to real-world work experiences. Often, students are illogically placed in CTE programs – sometimes ones in which they have no interest. Most students don’t earn the certifications required to obtain a related job – especially if their teacher leaves before the completion of the program. And students are often unable to transfer to different programs should they want to do so.

CTE teachers reported light course-loads (some only instruct 15-30 students a year), ineffective professional development, and uncertainty about the certification deadlines required to maintain teaching positions. Teachers also had challenges with funding allocations for materials, equipment, and out-of-school experiences.

The report provides a range of student stories that illustrate these concerns.

Report Recommendations

Broken Pathways: The Cracks in Career and Technical Education in Baltimore City Public Schools lists wide-ranging and practical recommendations rooted in student and teacher experiences.

  • The majority of Baltimore City Public School CTE programming should be located at two or three easily accessible centers. Students would take CTE classes at these centers and core academic classes at their home schools. This structure would give students access to all programs regardless of home school and enhance teacher collaboration while reducing the redundant finances required in a system with dozens of sites housing CTE programs.
  • In order to ensure students have the reading and math proficiency required for entry-level jobs aligned to specific CTE programs, establish clearly-defined program specific academic           prerequisites.
  •  Students should be given more than a single 45- or 72-minute period each day to master their CTE course material.
  • Each CTE center should have a team of work-based learning coordinators to match students with internships, as well as at least one counselor for every 250 students.
  • Stakeholders in local industries should review CTE curricula, advise on how to align instruction with industry practices, and advocate for programs connected to their industry.
  • Year-round, paid internships should be arranged for all CTE students via district partnership with Youthworks.

These recommendations have the potential to improve post-graduate outcomes for many of the students currently enrolled in CTE programs. If we are truly committed to preparing them for 21st century careers and personal success, then we must create programming that matches that commitment.

The full report is available here. Interested in learning more? Contact sydneys@ffee.org to set up a briefing on our findings and recommendations.

Education Reform: Elevating Student and Family Voices

We all know that educational reform is complex. Whether addressing enrollment, teacher recruitment, college readiness, literacy, school choice or the dozens of other issues facing Baltimore’s students, any change involves many people with many ideas and considerations.

Typically, conversations about improving some aspect of education for Baltimore’s students include school district leaders and representatives from educational nonprofits. Sometimes, funders and influencers are invited to provide perspectives. But in most cases, important people are missing from these conversations: the students and families who are most effected by – and who are the intended beneficiaries of – any improvement.

Students’ and families’ perspectives should be a part of any discussion about what will affect them. They belong in the conversations. By not including their thoughts on how to make the educational experience better, we push ideas onto them rather than finding solutions with them. We need to develop a system that reflects not just what we want (no matter how well-meaning we are), but what students and parents want. And we can only know that by asking and listening to them.

This is not a new thought. Many in Baltimore, from local educational nonprofits to the district itself, are working to engage with the families, students and communities impacted by decisions about their education. At the Fund for Educational Excellence, we’re speaking with communities about school choice, grade level reading, CTE programs and college readiness. Our Bmore Ready website was created by students, with the information that they consider important. Our School Choice Guide was created based on family feedback and with significant input from a parent. And our Grade Level Reading parent resources were created with significant input from parents. We’re hearing their recommendations and giving them voice. But we, and all of us, need to do more.

We recognize that not every decision in an 80,000-student school system can include everyone’s participation. But how and when we include students and communities in discussions – and doing so with intentionality – matters. It leads to better and more relevant decisions, greater understanding of why changes are being made, and easier buy-in.

How can we do this? To be truly collaborative, students and families need to be asked for input before decisions are made. Better yet, they should be at the table, in the discussion during the decision making process. And further, we need to change who the “deciders” are so that students and families are actively part of setting policy and making decisions.

This requires boldness. Unfortunately, reform has been too often based only on asking “what have other cities done?” and “is there evidence to support this approach?”. If used alone, those relevant and helpful questions risk perpetuating the pattern of relying only on the past to determine the future. It’s time we acknowledge that students and families have unique insight and deep passion that can impact positive change – and that those insights should be combined with evidence-based approaches for an inclusive and thoughtful path forward.

We all can do better. Next time we’re at a table where a decision is being made that affects people, let’s make sure those people are represented in the conversation. Next time we connect with students or families impacted by our work, let’s make sure we hear and understand their perspective, and do more listening than talking. Next time we are hiring, convening a committee or recruiting board members, let’s consider whether the experiences and insight our candidates bring reflects all of our constituents.

In doing so, our educational community will grow closer, stronger, and faster towards a system where every student from every community receives a fantastic education.