Does Baltimore City Public Schools need better teachers or better care?

By Dr. Amna Afreen

Students names have been changed to protect privacy.

I was extremely mad at Sara and Natasha because as usual, they were off-task. I was yelling at them again and it wasn’t working. They both went to the back of the class and started working on their own. I thought they were just playing some writing games or other fun activities. After a while, Sara came to me and tried to give me a note. I was boiling with anger and so I refused to even look at it. I yelled again, “Go back to your assigned seat and work!” At the end of the day, when I was cleaning my desk, I saw that paper and opened it. It said, “Ms. Afreen, you are going too fast.” I was ashamed.

I was a 5th-grade math teacher and I was teaching Eureka math. I had a total of 37 students divided into two groups. Out of those 37, only eight were on grade level. Therefore, most of my students did not understand what I was trying to teach them. It was frustrating not only for me but also for my kids. While kids like Sara and Natasha tried to speak out, I also had kids like Corina, Chris, and Cynthia, who never spoke but followed blindly whatever I wrote on the board because they didn’t want to be disrespectful. I had Victor, who yelled that he did not like me because the classroom was frustrating for him. Later I came to learn that his father was in jail and he was taking medicine to help him concentrate. In the same class, I had Peter, who had special needs, but he doesn’t get the academic support he needs from his aide. Matt, the tallest guy in the class, was repeating 5th grade. He was a good football player but he rarely worked in my class. Most of the time, he watched Youtube videos of drugs and other profane content. Mike fought with Samuel and ran around in the classroom. They both rarely worked in my class. Mike’s father and one other family member were both murdered in front of him. Samuel lived with his single Grandmother, an older woman, who worked and didn’t have enough time, energy, and resources to look after him. Once in a meeting with me, she cried, because she didn’t know what she could do.

I was teaching Eureka Math to a small number of my kids and the rest of them were not interested or thought that I was teaching too fast. According to my coach, I should have taught the rest of the students in small groups. Eureka took an hour, most of my teaching time, so in my opinion, I should teach Eureka in small groups to the small number of students who actually understand it,and I should be teaching my other students the skills they need to catch up, not material that they can’t understand. But I was bound to teach Eureka. Unsurprisingly, the results of i-Ready and A-net tests were frustrating. Most of my students performed poorly.

In the winter of 2019, I went to a Saturday workshop for new  teachers in Title I schools, where Dr. Lawrence Brown, an associate professor at Morgan State University, gave a presentation on “Cognitive Impacts of Baltimore Apartheid: How Toxic Lead & Trauma Impact Our Youth.” His talk was about the long legacy of trauma in Baltimore City that undermines the health and well-being of Black neighborhoods and students. His work maps the effects of Baltimore Apartheid, as well as the impact of toxic lead and trauma on the brains of Baltimore City students. He showed MRI scans of the affected brains. It was devastating for me to learn that my kids were not only facing violence, if not directly, indirectly in their neighborhood and extended families but also they were affected by toxic lead. It made me wonder, how come they are being tested on the same standardized tests as the rest of Maryland like Howard and Montgomery County’s prosperous families?

The way we test is unfair to the students of Baltimore City and to teachers as well, because teachers are also evaluated on the basis of their students’ test scores. After I went to the workshop with Dr. Brown, it was even more disturbing to me that our students are being judged against the students of prosperous counties. How can you compare healthy children, who have access to books and computers in their homes and their parents read to them most of their childhood life, with the children, like their parents, are affected by toxic lead and the severe trauma around them? Many of my kids’ parents were poor and were using drugs, some kids’ parents were in jails, and some living in shelter homes. Clearly, I was frustrated, I decided to do research on lead paint, effects of trauma, poor living, and the standardized tests. The results were profoundly disturbing.

According to Anna Maria Barry-Jester, a reporter on public health, the skin absorbs lead paint on walls, doors, and windows. Ingesting even a small quantity of lead can have lifetime effects and is especially dangerous for children under six. Speech delays, lack of impulse control, aggressive tendencies, ADHD and other learning disabilities are developed by exposure to lead. Baltimore City and lead paint has a long and toxic connection. In 1949, the Maryland legislature prohibited the use of lead paint in children’s toys, however, the law was reversed after pressure from the lead industry. Federal legislation eventually forbade the use of lead paint in 1978, but at that time it was in homes everywhere in the city and an increasing number of children were at risk from lead poisoning.

Despite the fact that over the last two decades, reductions in lead poisoning have been made, low-income black families still carry the burden of this legacy. Beyond the toxicity of lead, the poverty level in Baltimore is twice the national average at 24%. Baltimore City students’ exposure to trauma, mass incarceration, violence, drug addiction, environmental toxins, homelessness, poor health/nutrition can result in anxiety, attention deficit, depression, impulse control, aggression. Apart from the lack of healthy nutrition, a good night’s sleep, reading culture, easy access to computers, in the crime-plagued Baltimore neighborhood, it is significant to recognize that chronic childhood trauma affects brain development, which generates the risk of physical and behavioral health problems.

“Black youths make up 90% of juvenile arrests in Baltimore, though they represent just 64% of youths in the city. In 2017, nearly 34.9% of Baltimore City Public Schools’ students reported being in a physical fight on school property. The same year, 41% of female students and 22.8% of males reported feeling sad or hopeless.” (Katie Pearce, Oct 4, HUB, John Hopkins University)

If we know all of this information about our students and the public health outcomes of poverty, lead and trauma, why do we continue to teach and test as if nothing is wrong? Teachers need support from intervention systems. Professional support should be inside of classrooms with teachers. Para-educators and other intervention staff could support in restorative practices like calming exercises. They also could help the teacher in small group teaching. Baltimore City students need extra care and attention to cover the achievement gap and to build a high expectation culture in the classrooms. How can you expect teachers to have high expectations from their students with multiple issues going on? Comprehension and learning cannot be possible if the mind is not at peace, nurtured, and ready to learn. As described in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a human being requires to fulfill basic needs before moving on to fulfill psychological needs and Baltimore city students don’t have their basic needs: food and safety fulfilled so how are they expected to learn?

Additionally, it is extremely unfair to Baltimore students that they are being tested on standardized tests, which by definition are universally testing an entire population. It disregards the Baltimore City’s culture and our students’ needs. Moreover, a longstanding critique of standardized tests is that they are an unfair means to measure students’ comprehension of subject matter. Clearly, classroom educators need to participate more in evaluating deeper understanding in reading and writing. Computer scored assessments will not be enough.

I strongly feel that if I had the freedom of teaching according to the needs of my students, my students would not feel that I am too fast, and there would be fewer behavior issues in the class. And if I could make the tests accordingly, most of my students would pass 5th grade. Relying on teachers high expectations is not going to work. There should be an intervention system to produce a high expectations culture. Therefore, the solution is not only to find support to encourage a student’s positive adjustment to school and the ability to learn. Teachers also need additional support from an intervention team to be in the classroom to address the needs of the students effectively.

Dr. Amna Afreen is currently teaching at Furley Elementary, Baltimore City Public School.