Opinion: Kirwan Can Change City, State Education Trajectory

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I have worked in the education and nonprofit space in Baltimore for the past decade, and never have I been more excited and hopeful about the promise of education in our state.

This promise can only become a reality if our state legislators, those continuing to debate education reform in Annapolis, decide to fully implement the recommendations of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, better known as the Kirwan Commission.

At its core, the Kirwan Commission recommendations are about educational equity, about supporting all students, regardless of Zip code or circumstance, with the educational resources they need to learn and thrive. This isn’t the current reality for many students in our city.

I see firsthand the immense, lasting impact that a lack of resources and capacity have on both the education and development of students.

Nowhere is this inequity more clear to me than in the smiling faces of the 100 kindergarten students we support in Baltimore City Public Schools. These 5-year-olds are full of enthusiasm and promise, just starting their academic journeys. Before they even enter the school building, many of these students are already at a disadvantage, one that will continue to compound until adulthood.
These students are entering schools that are underfunded, disproportionately so on the basis of color. They are also entering school without a basic literacy foundation, the foundation of all future learning.

From the moment they enter, teachers, support staff, and nonprofits are playing catch-up, trying to set them on the path to read on grade level by fourth grade. This is the educational milestone that often determines if they will ever become grade-level readers, and significantly predicts their future academic success.

I know what the Kirwan Commission recommendations, especially its increased funding and expanded focus on early childhood education, could mean for these students and their futures. It could mean more teachers and staff, more student support and interventions, more resources for families.

It could mean children develop foundational literacy skills before they even enter elementary school, and enter school better prepared to learn how to read. And it could significantly impact the reading proficiency rate across our city and our state, all while ensuring that every child receives a quality education.
It won’t be easy. After all, you can’t achieve great change by following the status quo. It takes a long time to fix something as inequitable as public education systems, and the positive results of these recommendations certainly won’t materialize overnight. Our current kindergarteners, those halfway through their first year of schooling, will be 15 years old in 2030 when the Kirwan recommendations are fully implemented. And they’ll be 31 years old, well out of high school, in 2046 when, according to the Sage Policy Group’s analysis, Maryland will have more than fully recovered economically from the Kirwan investment in education.
But we can’t only think about these current students, we must look ahead and set the foundation for future generations’ success as well. What about the 5-year-olds who will enter kindergarten in 2030, 10 years from now?
Do we want them to enter the current education system, where their opportunities are based not on their abilities but by their zip code? Or do we want them to begin their elementary school experience surrounded by additional resources and at least one year of prekindergarten already supporting their growth?

Imagine what these students will be able to dream, pursue and accomplish with the resources of a more equitable, quality education system surrounding them.

I can’t wait for this reality, but it won’t come to fruition unless every citizen — those with or without children, those working in schools or not, those living in Baltimore City or on the Eastern Shore — band together and demand change. This isn’t just a fight for nonprofits like Reading Partners, city school systems, or tenured education experts; we all have a role to play in closing the education opportunity gap for Maryland students.

I’m urging our state legislators to be selfless enough to enable this reality, to fulfill our collective responsibility to create that environment. This is about children’s lives, after all. What greater legacy can any of us leave behind than the promise of a better tomorrow?

— JEFFREY ZWILLENBERG
The writer is executive director of Reading Partners Baltimore.