In a story that sounds all too familiar, a city school district featuring a high population of black children lacks the basic resources necessary for those children to learn—in this case, the infrastructure to shield students from the cold.
In Baltimore, students in approximately 60 buildings returned from winter break to face extremely cold temperatures inside their classrooms. Social media posts revealed rooms packed with kids still wearing gloves and coats, rooms where indoor temperatures hovered between 30 and 40 degrees. It’s an impossible learning environment that led to outcry from families and community members tired of seeing Baltimore’s children subjected to substandard conditions as schools in bordering districts thrive.
The circumstances that led to these pleas for help should have been addressed long ago. Instead they’re being answered, in part, by a GoFundMe campaign, an attempt to bandage a gaping wound by supplying schools with space heaters and winter wear. A Google Doc has circulated to generate donations of thermal blankets. These displays of generosity and humanity are admirable, but how did we get here? Why did students in Baltimore—and so many other cities and towns—get left behind?
It’s unconscionable. In one of the richest countries in the world, our children should never have to rely on a GoFundMe campaign to fill a gap left by the negligence of adults. Time and time again, people have made the decision not to invest in these kids’ safety or their education.
The roots of the situation are complicated, the variables too numerous to untangle here. The most basic explanation is that the city schools’ infrastructure is old. Depending on who you ask, the failure to maintain the buildings is a result of either failed projects by the district or a statewide funding system that disadvantages a city school district with depleted resources. Regardless of who gets the blame, what’s clear is that people in power have failed—and continue to fail—the children of Baltimore.
How to respond in the meantime poses a complicated question. The Baltimore Teachers Union wrote a letter calling for school closure until problems are fixed, citing “unfair and inhumane” conditions. In her Facebook Live video, city schools CEO Sonja Santelises rightly said she doesn’t take that decision lightly, since many children in the district rely on school as a source of regular, warm meals and daytime adult supervision.
It isn’t easy. But school leaders shouldn’t have been put in this position to begin with. And Santelises shares something in common with the Union, with the teachers and with Samierra Jones, who created the GoFundMe page: They each realize that it all comes down to caring for these kids.
That’s not their responsibility alone. That’s our job, too—period. Not just as educators, but as a society. To lift up the most vulnerable members of our community, keep them safe and prepare them to thrive.
What we’re witnessing in Baltimore is a result of an abject failure to live up to that responsibility. Political leaders created a system that impoverishes public city schools. Unfair funding schemes, voucher programs and one-size-fits-all policies suck resources from the schools that need them most; voters and parents who are willing to let this happen in order to maintain segregated schools are complicit in creating this inequality.
As Santelises said in the video, “We’re asking kids in Baltimore City to live through something that we’re not asking other kids in other districts to.”
It’s a narrative we witness too often. In Detroit. In Flint. Even in Montgomery, Alabama, which Teaching Tolerance calls home. A system seemingly designed to stick largely black and brown student populations with scant or second-rate resources leaves a community of families, activists and educators to do what they can. To crowdfund. To innovate. To do more with less.
But it’s time for that system to give them more from the start. It’s time to build our children up and shield them from the cold shoulder of injustice—and the layer of frost it leaves behind on their classroom floor.
Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.