UMD Report: Baltimore’s School Construction Program a Win for Students, but Less So for Neighborhoods

By Maggie Haslam / Dec 4, 2020

Researchers Cite Differing Priorities, Philosophies as Barriers to Creating Community-centric Facilities

Rundown empty classroom chairs.

A $1.1 billion program to replace or rehabilitate 28 aging Baltimore public schools is on track to transform the educational experience for underserved students, but institutional barriers hampered collaboration between government agencies and stymied efforts to position the new buildings as neighborhood assets, a new University of Maryland report reveals

The report, which will be presented to stakeholders later this month, shows that despite significant efforts by Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS), the Maryland Stadium Authority and city agencies at the helm of the 21st Century Schools Building Program (21CSBP), they collectively struggled to fulfill a state legislative mandate to design schools that offer community resources and galvanize further neighborhood investment and development.

“The report essentially demonstrates 21CSBP as a case study for ‘easier said than done, and here's why,’” Assistant Professor of Urban Studies and Planning Ariel Bierbaum, who led the two-year study. “This is not about any one agency being a bad team player or creating obstructions. It's about the reality of how we build our bureaucracies in public agencies in ways that create systemic barriers to this kind of cross-sector collaboration.”

The report, produced as part of the Maryland Philanthropy Network’s School-Centered Neighborhood Investment Initiative, showed that the agencies struggled with obstacles including differing cultures, priorities and operating philosophies and, in some cases, legacies of mistrust.

“In Baltimore, many decades of discriminatory policies and practices have caused significant and entrenched social and economic damage to Black communities, families and individuals,” said Frank Patinella, a senior education advocate for the ACLU of Maryland. “It is time to rethink how schools can offer new opportunities and solutions to these problems by ensuring effective collaboration among grassroots, public, private and nonprofit stakeholders when planning for and designing a new school. Schools can be community hubs where people can access services for employment, housing, child care, GED classes, health care and much more.”

Launched in 2010, 21CSBP has opened 15 schools with nine additional schools under construction and three schools in the design development phase. The program expects to be complete within the next 10 years.

While the investment represents an enormous victory for Baltimore students, schools as catalysts for community and economic development encourage neighborhood conditions that are critical to the stability and success of Baltimore families, said Bierbaum.

Key to these missed opportunities, the report found, was a project implementation schedule that failed to provide opportunities to build relationships between agencies, leverage local insight or plan for collaborative implementation, leading to a lack of coordination and disjointed outcomes.

While the school system focused on its most underserved students, the report states, the Department of Planning and Department of Recreation and Parks envisioned schools that support not just students, but the larger community. These missions can coexist, and even complement each other, with the right synergy, said report co-author Alisha Butler, a doctoral student in UMD’s College of Education.

“When we think about education and school reform, oftentimes we are not thinking about the broader connection with the neighborhood, but schools and communities are intrinsically linked,” she said. “Having a unified vision and approach can really break down some of those barriers, where both the educational objectives and the community objectives can take place.”

Bierbaum said that the COVID-19 pandemic and broader attention to the Black Lives Matter movement exposed the social role schools play for the larger community while amplifying racial disparities across neighborhoods. In areas with robust, well-organized community organizations and community-school coordinators who connect with other neighborhood groups, schools become hubs to meet vital needs: food pantries, financial literacy training, homeownership counseling, health clinics and venues for community recreation. Across the city, staff carried on some of these services even in the face of COVID-19 and served as a lifeline for many residents.

“The pandemic demonstrated that for some families, schools are the only place they can get food. They are a critical social safety net to our kids and their neighborhoods,” said Erin O’Keefe, director of Loyola University Maryland’s Center for Community Service and Justice, one of the report’s co-authors.

To better envision how schools in new buildings could become community resources, the report recommends creating a community of practice, or learning network, facilitated by a neutral stakeholder; this would provide a forum for agency stakeholders, advocacy groups and community-based organizations to unify priorities, strengths and resources collectively. The report’s recommendations and lessons learned from 21CSBP could help guide more coordinated, community-centric school investments in the future; in February, the Maryland House of Delegates authorized upward of $2.2 billion to repair and rebuild additional schools throughout the state.

“Our School Centered Neighborhood Investment Initiative envisions schools as community assets and anchors that ultimately position these neighborhoods as highly desirable residential options for parents with school-aged children, while also attracting increased real estate development and new businesses,” said Celeste Amato, president of the Maryland Philanthropy Network. “From a philanthropic viewpoint, the report's clear data set is a foundation for understanding the impact these new schools have on their respective communities, and provides guidance for future actions such as advocating for more investment, or increasing community collaboration with the public, private and philanthropic sectors.”  

“Understanding the challenges that agencies faced in the implementation of 21CSBP is critical to creating positive impact of large infrastructure investments to communities,” said Bierbaum. “There is an immediate infusion of community pride, stewardship and hope in projects like this, as well as quantitative results down the line, like higher school enrollment and neighborhood revitalization. But for that to fully materialize, stakeholders need to find better ways to work together.”

Program / Center Affiliation