County Health Rankings & Roadmaps — Transforming Public Schools in Baltimore: Q&A with Robert English

Mar 18, 2014, 12:59 PM


Years of research shows that school facilities in poor condition—including faulty heating and cooling systems, poor indoor air quality, and deficient science labs—significantly reduce academic achievement and graduation rates. On the other hand, new and renovated school buildings that are equipped with modern science labs; art and music resources; and other amenities lead to improved educational outcomes. Research has also shown that when students attend high-quality schools they are more likely to be engaged in school and have higher attendance, test scores and graduation rates. 

The public schools in Baltimore, Md., have the lowest graduation rates and oldest facilities in the state. A recent report described 85 percent of Baltimore’s 162 public school buildings as being in either poor or very poor condition.

While graduation rates in Baltimore public schools have increased significantly in recent years, thanks to better funding and other academic-focused efforts, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) aims to further improve the graduation rate, educational outcomes, overall health and economic prosperity of Baltimore residents. The goal is to integrate the rebuilding and renovation of every city school into the district’s education reform efforts. BUILD and its partners, ACLU of Maryland and Child First, want to change state and city policies to support school construction and renovation.

BUILD is the recipient of a County Health Rankings & Roadmaps community health grant to educate and engage parents, school leaders, and leaders from other sectors such as business, the community and  faith leaders about the need for updated schools to get the best education outcomes for Baltimore’s students. NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Robert English, BUILD’s lead organizer, about the group’s recent successful efforts.

>>How healthy is your county? Join the live webcast event on March 26 to celebrate the launch of the 2014 County Health Rankings and to spotlight communities taking action to build a culture of health across America.

NPH: What’s the link between improving the school infrastructure and improving the graduation rates?

English: A leading indicator of students graduating from high school is that they feel safe and challenged in their schools. We’ve talked to thousands of students and families in Baltimore City and by the time students here in Baltimore get into the 9th grade and 10th grade, they have often lost interest in high school and many of them have said that it’s because of the facilities. We didn’t have science labs in many cases or other core components of a quality education to send kids to college.

This campaign is about building the 21st century learning environments that can prepare young people not only to graduate, but to go to college. For BUILD this is not a bricks-and-mortar campaign—this is about providing the educational space where every child has an opportunity to learn, and then secondly this is about bringing people together around creating high expectations for students. We’ve continued to organize in the schools that are in year one through year three of school construction, and the constituency we are building will be here to hold our schools accountable to providing real results.

NewPublicHealth: Give us the broad strokes of the efforts of BUILD and its partners to improve the education environment in Baltimore.

Robert English: The project is an effort through the Baltimore Education Coalition (BEC), which was cofounded by the BUILD Organization, the ACLU of Maryland and the Child First Education Initiative. No new school has been built in Baltimore in more than 30 years. We had schools that didn’t have workable water fountains because of lead contamination in the pipes, there were broken tiles, broken floors and several schools had no heat. The Baltimore Education Coalition organized 26 school organizations to focus on renovating and building schools and improving Baltimore overall.

The ACLU did a comprehensive study of school buildings in Baltimore and recommended some financial solutions. And then BEC really galvanized the community to take action. We presented the plan and the state legislature commissioned a study of the recommendations. This past year, BEC called for a billion dollars in funding for school improvements. We got commitments from the state, the city delegation, the speaker of the house, corporate leaders and philanthropic leaders, and the state legislature passed a package to finance nearly a billion dollar bond. That would help renovate or construct 35 schools throughout the city.

NPH: What happens to the schools that are not yet in the first wave?

English: This campaign is about making sure that every Baltimore City student has an opportunity to attend a 21st century school. This victory was the first billion and now we’re moving toward organizing for the second phase of funding for our schools.

NPH: What needs to be done differently going forward in Baltimore to make sure schools stay in good repair and that the education quality reaches and stays at the highest levels?

English: I think a really important point to make about this campaign is that this it didn’t come from the top down. It was parents and teachers and principals and congregations that came together to demand what’s best for kids. And by starting in the community, the parents and teachers and principals own this change.

The first step was focused on securing the financing. We’re now in the second phase—communities aligning with the school system and the mayor to design new schools. Just recently we had 800 parents, teachers, students, principals and congregation members at a design expo to look at 21st century learning. So we have teams in each of the proposed schools that are part of the design team helping to design a new school. Then BEC, BUILD and the ACLU will ensure that the constituency is united to hold the contractors, the city and the city schools accountable for creating the buildings that kids deserve. And then that constituency will work on further education reform.

Not only did this effort start with the community, it will continue with the community. Many coalitions do good work and they come and go. What the Baltimore Education Coalition is doing is organizing power to make change that lasts. So we’re not going to fade away—we will continue to organize the constituency and organize more power to leverage additional resources for more schools. Recently, the Baltimore City School System, with the support of the Baltimore Education Coalition, created a ten-year plan to renovate and modernize every school building.

NPH: Are there other efforts BUILD is involved in to improve community health in Baltimore?

English: Absolutely. BUILD has led the development of more than 1,000 affordable homes. What we know is poor neighborhood conditions marked by rat urine and cockroach droppings are among the most significant triggers for asthma in our neighborhoods. So our anti-blight campaigns are directly related to the health of our neighborhoods.

Another way to describe BUILD’s work is that in order to help improve health, we know that we’ve got to act to improve other indicators such as education, employment and safety.

And the school construction campaign is not only about schools—it’s the single largest investment in Baltimore’s neighborhoods. In order to improve health, we have to have healthy neighborhoods, stable neighborhoods and quality housing. The new construction will generate 8,000 jobs, which then will help increase people’s employment and wages so that they can help provide a better health for their families.

>>Bond Content - Learn more about the link between schools and health with these facts from NewPublicHealth.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.