“Good Morning Baltimore,” the opening number of the Broadway hit, Hairspray, is known for its laughably optimistic portrayal of Baltimore in the 60s. As the main character skips to school, she sings to the rats and waves to the neighborhood flasher and drunk. It’s scary to imagine what this opening number might look like set in Baltimore in this decade.
The Baltimore Sun recently reported another year of population loss for Baltimore. The city now nears a 100-year low according to the US Census. Looking at the numbers, one contributor, David Placher, wrote that it “didn’t take an investigator” to find a cause. Describing the atrocious crime rates and the crumbling public school systems, he said:
“The city’s public school system is a disaster. Last year, some of the schools had zero students who were proficient in math. A couple of months ago, a few city public schools had to temporarily close because of heating problems. If anyone thinks a family would move to the city or stay in the city because of its public school system, then they have another thing coming. The city’s public school enrollment is on the decline. Families are moving to the surrounding counties so they can send their children to decent schools.”
And the most recent census data confirms this. Baltimore City has 5,739 fewer 5-to-9 year olds than should be expected given the number of preschool children in the city. The Baltimore Sun used census data last year to calculate the outflow of families to the suburbs, and here’s what they saw:
- Baltimore / -6,738 / 614,664
- Anne Arundel County / +4,509 / 568,346
- Baltimore County / +1,817 / 831,026
- Carroll County / +5 / 167,656
- Harford County / +894 / 251,032
- Howard / +4,522 / 317,233
Lots and lots of movement away from the city to the suburbs. Even a quick google search of the words “Baltimore population” pulls a graphic of decline:
Melissa Schober, a young mom, self-described as a “city-person,” is contemplating leaving. When interviewed, she described reaching the point of exhaustion and listed off things like “fights on the bus, an attempted theft at the library, graffiti on her house, the empty syringe on the sidewalk that greeted her when she returned from vacation.”
So, how does Baltimore keep ‘city-people’ like Schober and bring back others? David Plancher might argue it’s obvious - fix bad schools and crime - but we all know it’s not as easy as waving a magic wand. Neighborhood and community change isn’t impossible, but it takes time. So what changes bad schools and crime over time? Are there similar communities who experienced population loss that have seen growth?
A Potential Answer:
Ralph Opacic, founder of Orange County School of the Arts would argue he has an answer. The article, “When an art school in high demand meets a shrinking school district” describes the story of crime-riddled Santa Ana and the power this charter school had to change that community. Now, the same charter school, who turns away nearly 2,000 students every year, is opening a second school in another struggling district, Duarte School District.
Duarte has faced similar challenges. With a loss of about 25% of their enrollment, Superintendent Allan Mucerino is ready to reverse a 15-year streak of declining enrollment by opening The California School of the Arts - San Gabriel Valley. He believes that a way to encourage families to stay in his community is to give them choice. "People want choice and if you’re a district not providing choice, you’re gonna be left behind," Mucerino said, "We don’t want to be left behind.
And it sounds like Duarte is already attracting new families and potentially bringing back those who’ve left. "That was definitely us," said Teri Cronin, who moved her kids to a charter school in Altadena two years ago. She says class sizes got too big in Duarte and there wasn’t enough opportunity for the kids. "As much as I understand the concept is – 'we need your families to stay here to make the school better for everybody' – as a parent, I had to make the best choice I could for my daughter." But she says she’d move the whole family back if her daughter gets into the new arts school.
In other words, there’s hope for Baltimore and cities like it when families have more school options. Families, who can afford to, will leave if they perceive they only have bad options, and they leave behind poverty in their wake. But with more choice comes more willingness to stay, and, by effect, more economic growth. Baltimore, take note. Let’s dream up ways to give families in Baltimore better options. Here’s your chance - “The world’s gonna wake up and see, Baltimore and me!!"