BALTIMORE – Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich examined operations at three Baltimore schools Friday, continuing a national tour to highlight school challenges and analyze reforms.
“We believe that, along with the president, that every parent ought to have the right to take their children to a school they believe in,” said Gingrich, a Republican who led the House from 1995 to 1999.
President Obama’s initiative to improve education and college preparedness across the nation inspired this group to take a close look at what reforms are needed to meet this goal.
They want to look at “lifting restrictions on the growth of high-quality charter schools, turning around low-performing schools, and improving principal and teacher quality,” according to a news release from the Department of Education.
The tour’s first stop was in Philadelphia on Sept. 29, and their third and final stop is to be determined.
In Maryland, lawmakers are looking to let schools set their standards individually.
“We’ve got to have more autonomy and more freedom with regard to faculty and longer school hours,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, who joined the school tour Friday.
“We want to get a message across to Maryland that we should change,” added Gingrich.
Duncan, Sharpton, Gingrich, and Cummings sat down with small groups of students at the public charter school KIPP-Ujima Village Academy; Holabird Elementary School, a public school; and Hampstead Hill Academy, also a public charter school, to ask what they like about going to school and how they learn.
At KIPP-Ujima Village, which teaches about 330 fifth- through eighth-graders in Northwest Baltimore, the students said they are proud of their education and hoped other schools follow in their footsteps. The school, part of the Knowledge is Power Program, is one of 82 nationwide that uses small classes and longer school days and years to help young students prepare for college.
Eighth-grader Joshua Woods said he thinks that KIPP schools “won’t only change (education in) the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland, but in the whole nation.”
Woods added that having dedicated teachers helped put him and his classmates on the path to college.
“You need special teachers, teachers who want to teach,” he said.
Sharayna Phipps, also in eighth grade, said that KIPP-Ujima Village’s longer school days and years have changed her view about school: “We come here to learn. We don’t come here to play.”
Students at KIPP-Ujima Village are in class for up to nine-and-a-half hours a day and up to three additional weeks in the summer, according to the school’s web site. Other KIPP schools across the country have Saturday sessions, but Maryland laws on charter schools prohibit that here.
“This school is working and is working extremely well,” said Cummings. He said he hopes that the national attention will spread the school’s practices to others across the country.
KIPP plans a total of three elementary schools and three middle schools in Baltimore.