The War Inside Education

Abraham Lincoln once quipped: “Teach the children so it won’t be necessary to teach the adults.” I became involved in education in my Georgetown University undergraduate career at two local high schools: Duke Ellington High School and Ballou High School. After graduation, I felt an urge to make a greater impact by taking teaching full time. In 2010, I was offered a position in Baltimore. I sought this change because I saw an opportunity to work with youth and hoped to make an impact in a different city. Almost seven years later, I find myself fighting bureaucracy, incompetence, apathy, and systemic failures on a political level that have proved challenging. It pains me inside to see how Baltimore city leadership has failed our schools, school leaders, teachers, and most of all our students. In all these challenges two voices are always missing or ignored: teachers and students. What does it mean for a system that continually sees a high CEO turnover rate, principal turnover rates, and teacher turnover rates? Does anyone care?

I have worked at a local middle school in West Baltimore and created my own non-profit mentoring organization called Brothers In Action, Inc. I realized that teaching could only produce limited results in a field full of landmines. I believe I have to spend time outside of school through mentoring. I have witnessed some of my mentees killed by violence over the last years. I often find myself wondering what else I can do. I wonder does anyone notice Darius Bardney is gone? Darius was a former student of mine and mentee in Brothers In Action, Inc. Darius like many youth had potential but often found himself at the crossroads between a bright future or bleak one. I worked with Darius in middle school and in his first two years in high school (he would pass away sophomore year). My common purpose was to drive out his passion and help him develop his confidence. He wanted to go to college one day and play lacrosse as well as basketball. Unfortunately, gun violence blackened his future. I work tirelessly to ensure the community focuses on finding solutions to problems. However, I am often—like other educators invested in social justice—chided.

I even worked with community organization and hosted a violence forum in March. Although we spoke and raised concerns to teachers, parents, police officers, administrators, our concerns fell to silence. I challenged everyone to go back to their respective communities and prepare action plans. The call to action is still unanswered. Violence continues to plague our schools and community, yet evaluations and accountability is what the school district presses. When a school loses a student the district sends a “crisis team,” but after a few days they are gone. Promises of assistance and support are offered yet never fulfilled. What does that mean to the educators in a classroom who has to be a counselor, mentor, parent, teacher, and much more? The children await for a sense of hope and salvation but quickly realize it is bigger than the school.

Then, I realize the problems are deeper than Common Core, tests, or grades. It lies in a system where we become conspirators to murder. We kill our children in a biased curriculum designed in the 20th century mindset housed in 20th century buildings with 21st century expectations. If this were a Fortune 500 company, they would seek advice and survey the customers to see what they can do to improve quality service. However, in “Baltimore City Public Schools,”like many other urban cities, district leaders worry about serving test makers, policy makers, and money sharks. All this takes place, while ignoring the needs of the students who are suffering from traumatic experiences in their communities and schools. We have to be counselors, mentors, role models, mediators, and so much more, but the system is worried about test scores and reduced suspensions. It appears we are all at a Ravens football game, but everyone has a different concern related to other sports. Our students are sick and we are on a plane with no doctor and a pilot who jumps off the plane every time turbulence kicks into high gear. The common philosophy is “teach to the test.” District support is entangled in school accountability, but when will they hold other stakeholders accountable? I have attended school board meetings, public forums, and city meetings. The voices are often controlled by agencies striving to engineer an educational system designed to increase prison revenue, at the same time depleting school resources. What happened to the principals, teachers, politicians of the past who were not afraid of agencies and fought for equality and equity during the Civil Rights movement and other periods of time?

What about the children? How can you have school and not care for the needs of the children? Why a crisis team is only deployed when a tragedy takes place? Why do principals have to struggle between choosing part-time social workers or psychologists or counselors? How many more students have to be killed inside a school or community to shake the system up? What will it take to support teachers and hear their concerns? Why do schools such as Booker T. Washington get treated like Cinderella and casted out as a stepchild of the district? When will something simple as clean water, working classroom doors, better cafeteria food for the children, and much more be addressed? How long will we have to endure unstable district and school leadership at the expense of student lives and teachers leaving the field because they lost hope?

The needs and voices will not be silenced. The questions above are directed at all the school district leaders, school leaders, and political officials. We need to work together to find solutions and let go of apathetic approaches to education. I do not want an equal education, I want an equitable one. Equality is when Michael Jordan gives free Jordans (size 9) to everyone at an event, but I wear a size 14. Is this equal? Yes. Is it fair? No. Equity is when Michael Jordan asks everyone at the event to complete their shoe size on a form ahead of time and he provides the correct shoe size at the event. Education has become complacent in equality versus equity.

I will continue to fight for Darius Bardney, Anaiais Jolley, Diandre Barnes, and other youth who I have lost this year alone. A soldier cannot be afraid of war. Sometimes in war, the general loses his or her vision and passion, but the soldiers must remind them of the war. Generals come and go in war and school leadership, but soldiers drive the mission and win or lose a war. I will not be silenced by policy, people, or politics. Our children deserve better and if I cannot use my degrees, experiences, network, or even voice to fight for them, then I am not good. Dr. Napiro in the movie Lean on Me challenges Principal Joe Clark to undertake a new mission at Eastside High School. Principal Clark refuses initially until Dr. Napiro asks the question “For all the crazy Joe antics, what have you accomplished? Nothing.” For all of us educators, what have we accomplished? Do we kowtow to policy makers who press test scores while negating the trauma black youth face in Baltimore and in urban cities? Or do we stand up and fight and support the needs of our black youth first and then look at meeting state standards? Time is passing and decisions need to be made or every second we waste another child is lost to violence, crime, community, etc.

By Anthony Peña

Anthony Peña was born in Springfield, Massachusetts and attended Georgetown University where he graduated with a Bachelors of Science in the School of Foreign Service. He undertook an opportunity to be a Teach for America teacher in Baltimore, and is currently the Dean of Students at a middle school in Baltimore. Anthony began a non-profit organization called Brothers In Action, Inc. that mentors young black and Latino males in Baltimore. His focus is always about leaving the world in a better place than when he found it.