Tuesday Talk… with Janelle Gendrano

Janelle Gendrano is a Hillsborough High School alumna who was a four-year member of HHS Debate and a student in my AP Gov class. She also performed in all the Variety Shows and Unplugged concerts from her sophomore year on. We grew close through Debate, but also music, and she left me with the single greatest gift a student has ever given me: an original song that makes me cry just thinking about it. Beyond her intelligence, passion, and musical ability is the fact that she is simply one of the funniest people on the planet.

Did you spend all of your childhood in Hillsborough? If not, what do you remember about where you lived before?

The first years of my life were spent in Newark, New Jersey. We moved to Hillsborough when I started pre-K, but I spent almost every weekend in Newark while I was in elementary school because of my mom’s job and then periodically until the end of Middle School. My mom worked weekend nights at a hospital in Newark, and we had only one car, so every weekend we’d drive to Newark, drop her off, and drive back. Sometimes we would stay in our old apartment if it wasn’t being rented, in which case I always stayed inside because the streets weren’t the safest or cleanest. 

I remember in Newark we would eat a lot of Chinese takeout and McDonalds because there weren’t many food options — healthy, affordable, or in general. I remember looking out the window as my dad drove down our street in Newark, and I remember seeing the neighborhood elementary school have iron bars on the windows and barbed wire on top of the chain link fence that surrounded the outdoor area, which was just blacktop — no playground or anything. Then once we got to Hillsborough, there was green space everywhere, kids playing outside, and playgrounds open for anyone to use. I really do think that inequitable juxtaposition, seeing it almost every weekend when I was a little kid, really shaped how I think about the world and what I’ve tried to do with my life as an adult.

How would you describe your time at Hillsborough High School?

I loved high school! It was such an important and formative time for me, and I was fortunate enough to meet the right friends, teachers, mentors (or “all of the above” people, like yourself!) to help me navigate that experience in a positive way. I don’t think my brain started to congeal until college, so academically and executive function-wise, I could have been better. But in retrospect I am glad that I instead poured my heart and soul into extracurriculars or particular assignments that I cared about, like music and debate. All of my best high school memories are related to those things — staying up late to write or record a song, the healthy nerves before a performance or debate speech, hanging out with friends backstage at a show or after session at a debate conference. I’m happy that my memory bank has a lot more things than studying and the usual high school drama.

One regret that I do have is that I wish that I got to know a wider and more diverse set of people in high school, in terms of race and lived experiences. I think this was a function of academic tracking, which has significant race and socioeconomic implications on class composition, and Hillsborough’s generally homogeneous demographics at the time. 

What did the social studies department do well… and not so well?

Let’s start with the not-so-well. I had a terrible experience in 9th grade World History because it was all didactic, passionless instruction based on a textbook that was written in, I don’t know, 1956. I think I remember my disappointment so acutely because social studies was, and always has been, my favorite K-12 subject. My teacher also clearly prioritized his after school sports coaching over teaching, but I guess that’s a pot calling kettle situation since I prioritized my after school activities over his instruction, too. Thank goodness I found HHS Debate in my freshman year — it helped keep that love for social studies alive! 

I only had four teachers in the social studies department, you included, so I have a limited view. I will say that I thought Dr. Garber’s Socratic seminars were a pretty sophisticated teaching style for sophomores given that young people are usually being instructed to seek approval and affirmation that they are following directions correctly rather than being empowered to interpret information in one’s own way, with evidence. The format really helped prepare me for college and be sure of myself in discussions. I also think experiential learning brings social studies alive, whether it is simulations of past issues, a debate about contemporary issues, or a service learning project. I loved having that opportunity in your AP Gov class, and I made it a key aspect of my own teaching practice later on.

What impact did four years of HHS Debate have on you?

I don’t think I would be who I am today without HHS Debate. 

The debate trips made a huge impact on me. Because you and Ryalls and Morrison (now Brogan) were such active advisors, HHS Debate students had so many opportunities to go places and be exposed to new things. I am grateful for the robust fundraising machine you all built to increase  access to these trips regardless of a student’s family’s financial situation. In retrospect, these trips, from Rutgers Model Congress to Bath (UK) Model United Nations, were really life changers. My parents were really strict at the time, so unless it was a school-sponsored trip, I wasn’t going anywhere, especially not an overnight trip. And they worked so incredibly hard that I felt a lot of guilt about asking for trip money, though they were always happy and willing to support me. I really appreciated the privilege to go places and the opportunity to work to pay my way. The exposure to new places and people gave me the confidence and experience I needed to get myself out there in life after high school.

I also think you in particular probably deserved a stipend specifically for giving me pep talks since I was often self-flagellatory about my self-worth, especially when I was serving as president in my junior year. High school insecurities ABOUND! I recall a particular conversation during which I was upset with myself (who knows why) and you took the time to point out positive things that happened in HHS Debate under my leadership, such as the significant increase of female participation during my tenure, that I didn’t even realize because I was fixated on everything I thought I was doing wrong. It taught me to trust myself a bit more and to step back when I get in these phases and assess what’s working along with what’s not working rather than fixating on the negative and getting hopelessly overwhelmed.

When I was at Rutgers, I went on to participate in the Institutional for Domestic and International Affairs (IDIA), the organization that organized the Rutgers Model Congress and Rutgers University Model United Nations conferences, and it was then that I realized my passion for working directly with young people. That, along with the influence of great teachers and mentors, led me to becoming a secondary social studies teacher, probably the single most important job I’ve ever had and a job I hope to return to at the end of my career.

How do you explain your Richard Milhous Nixon fetish?

The word fetish here gives me the heebie jeebies! When I was in high school, the oppositional and defiant part of my personality was kept in check by immigrant parent/Catholic guilt, but it still manifested in weird ways. For instance, I consistently argued the conservative perspective in Model Congress despite not agreeing with it at all, I chose countries with despotic leaders in Model United Nations despite being vested in human rights issues and participating in Amnesty International, and I chose historical weirdos like Richard Milhous Nixon as the subject of social studies assignments. I have no recollection of how it all started, but at some point I ended up reading a few books about him, learning weird trivia about him like the fact he lived in an abandoned toolshed while he was at Duke University Law School because he couldn’t afford room and board, and before I knew it, I became the kid obsessed with Richard Nixon. I’m happy and relieved to report that the Nixon phase of my life is over (though the oppositional and defiant part is still thriving). 

Like all the best people, you attended Rutgers College (when that was still a thing), majoring in anthropology and American Studies. I only learned about that second major a couple years into my time there, and wished I’d known of its existence. What did you think your double major was going to lead to?

No idea whatsoever! I was just focused on A) taking courses that I was interested in learning about and B) getting out of Rutgers in three years and starting my adult life quickly. Anthropology and American Studies were the two subjects that I was most interested in coming into college, along with political science, in which I ultimately minored. It just so happened that the combination of those three subjects, plus some AP test-related credits, helped me very efficiently knock out the Rutgers College requirements. 

When I was an academic advisor, I often heard a statistic that said college students, on average, change their major three times before sticking with one. My experience was a little different — I declared my majors and minor in the spring of my freshman year and never deviated because I was, and remain, so interested in these subjects. I thought they could help me understand humans and society better, and I believe they did and gave me the tools to continue to learn more. And major props to the American Studies department — they were my home away from home while I was at Rutgers and did a tremendous job providing individualized attention to students who sought a stronger relationship with the department. One of my professors, Dr. Leslie Fishbein, became my thesis advisor and is a lifelong mentor and friend.

When did you decide to go to Teachers College at Columbia University? Did you think you would be a classroom teacher for your entire career?

I became a teacher because of my love of working with young people, a desire to teach in an urban school district (specifically Title I schools), my passion for social studies, and my goal of helping build a generation of socially responsible, civically engaged Americans. At the time, I did think I’d be a teacher forever, in part because I had no idea what else would suit me (and what else was out there) and in part because I felt confident in my starting point ability to work with young people and my ability to improve over time. 

Can you weigh in on this incredibly important controversy: how lame a name is “Teachers College”? They don’t have Dentists School or Entrepreneur School, they have Dental and Business School. And shouldn’t there be an apostrophe in there somewhere? Why do they make the ketchup packets so small?

IT IS THE LAMEST. If asked about where I received my teaching degree and I respond, “Teachers College,” 50 percent of the time the other person is like, “Oh, what specific teacher training college?” And then I have to be like, “Teachers College, Columbia University.” And that makes me sound like a gross person who cares about college branding and correcting my conversation partner. But then, do I just respond, “Teachers College at Columbia University” from the outset? Because that makes me sound pretentious. Thank you for allowing me to explain the internal dilemma I have had since I first enrolled in that place. This has been my TED Talk.

Unsure about the ketchup packets. I tried to avoid the food hall at all costs. Only the turkey burger appeared edible, which is saying something. Luckily, my first teaching placement was in Chinatown so I basically subsisted on $1 dumplings and steamed buns that year.

Tell me about the Silk Road Connect program.
Yo-Yo Ma had a really cool idea to bring together musicians and teachers to put together an interdisciplinary social studies World History curriculum focused on the Silk Road. Our school was a pilot school, and I helped create some content for the curriculum. At the time, it felt like an additional and significant responsibility on an already overwhelmed new-ish teacher, but I am glad to have been a part of the demonstration year. I have no idea how it evolved, but I valued that experience for bringing in arts education and exposure into my school when so little time in the day (and so few resources) are dedicated to it.

How did you take to the daily grind of being in front of a classroom? Did you draw upon your musical performance or debate experience?

Honestly, not well. I started teaching at 20 years old — I was just a kid myself, fueled by optimism and idealism but pretty naive in general about the world and the world of work. Debate and performing really did help, though. I think I bypassed some of the learning curve about being comfortable in front of a room of young people, between performing regularly and having had three years of experience facilitating learning activities and simulations for high school students through IDIA. I’d like to think my classes were not a snoozefest, but I’d defer to my former students on that.

But at one point I was commuting 2.5 hours each way to my school in Brooklyn (from my childhood home in Newark) so I was leaving my house at 4 am, getting to school at 6:30 am, not really having any viable prep periods, leaving school at 7 or 8 pm (since I could rarely use my preps for prepping), grading until 10 or 11 pm. I was also teaching sixth grade Humanities, which turned out to be 90% literacy and (much of it remediation, all of which was not my forte, interest, or expertise) and 10% social studies. It was really a lot, and I moved to Brooklyn by month three, though that only marginally helped me manage a completely unsustainable schedule. I don’t think the “self-care” concept was very fashionable then, so none of that happened for me. Teacher burnout is a very, very real thing. My switch to teaching eighth grade was a much better experience for me and my students as US history and was definitely more in my comfort zone, and eighth graders were just grown enough where they were more independent but also still bonafide kids who were silly and fun. 

Overall, I was only in the secondary classroom for three years, and I think I had much more to learn about how to manage that grind better. That being said, I do feel like I can do almost anything after what my first years of teaching threw at me. I definitely would like to return to teaching or work directly with young people toward the end of my career, once I have a few decades of experience existing as a fully-formed, functional adult human. I will say that in every role I have had since teaching, I’m always just so grateful to have my own stapler and a working copy machine. It’s the little things.

How fundamentally different was teaching in a Title I school to your own experience in the relative lap of luxury that is Hillsborough?

I taught in the era of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and School Chancellor Joel Klein (and a brief cameo by the Betsy DeVos of NYC, Cathie Black, who was hired to run the largest school system in America with zero experience as an educator or school administrator). They had the brilliant idea to break up big schools into small schools without giving additional resources to account for breaking up economies of scale and physical resources that large, comprehensive schools enjoyed. So, in our case, three schools shared one building, one gym, one cafeteria, one auditorium, etc., and it was rarely ever a smooth sharing situation. I would regularly be upset by the lack of access my students had to things that I took for granted as a kid, like physical education, regular art/music classes, clubs/extracurriculars, even RECESS, because of budget and resource constraints exacerbated by the small schools movement. My school leaders and colleagues did their absolute best to provide these opportunities through creative partnerships and fundraising, and as a result I think our school probably had more enrichment resources than an average NYC public school. But it was really tough. 

The students I worked with were incredibly brilliant and resilient in so many ways. Many also had a lot of adult issues to handle due to circumstances in their family and community. Most of my former students lived in areas of concentrated poverty. The impact of poverty and associated trauma is real. I still think about one sixth grade student I had who would act up constantly and never participate to share her ideas, and it would flummox and frustrate me since I knew she was really smart. And when I was grading her writing journal a week after a particularly rough patch in class, and I learned that a week ago, she was flying paper airplanes outside her apartment window and while looking outside saw her sister get slashed in the face with a knife by her sister’s boyfriend. I was teaching middle school, and I had pregnant and parenting students. It was an entirely different context from what I knew from my experience in Hillsborough.

Why did you leave teaching high school for working at Pace University? What did that job entail?

I was feeling pretty burned out at the same time I was starting to feel like I was improving as a social studies teacher. My main push factor was when I learned that contract negotiations had stalled between my union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE). I learned that because social studies not considered an “essential” subject by the NYCDOE, if an agreement was not made, I (along with any art, music, physical education, and elective teachers) were the first on the chopping block. And because I was a relatively new teacher in a seniority-based system, I would be at the front of the line. It was then that I started madly applying elsewhere. 

I received a few offers, but the one I chose was to be an Academic Advisor and Instructor in the Challenge to Achievement at Pace (CAP) program. CAP essentially served students identified as “academically underprepared” with potential for college success, and this group was disproportionately comprised of students from low-income families, first generation college students, or students who did not attend schools with strong college preparatory pathways. I wanted to continue working directly with young people, and I was (and still am) committed to serving students from low-income families, so I accepted the offer from Pace. I had also worked in the Office of Academic Advising while at Rutgers, and I loved that experience, so I thought it could be a good fit. Of course, two weeks after I turned in my resignation and told my students I would be leaving after the school year ended, the UFT and NYCDOE came to an agreement, and I was offered my job back. But at that point, I was mentally ready to try a new way of working with young people. 

At Pace, I had a student caseload of 80-90 students. I built their schedules, taught their first year seminar, advised them through their freshman year, helped them figure out their interests and passions, and generally helped them navigate the complex (and insanely expensive) world of higher ed. I loved that job.

How did you get hooked up with Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation? What was your favorite lesson plan that you wrote for RRFF?

A professor of mine at Teachers College was affiliated with RRFF and asked if I’d be interested in writing lessons plans for the effort. I loved interdisciplinary instruction and the idea of infusing arts and music into social studies in an intentional way. My favorite lessons were about the history of gospel music and its roots in West African traditions.

You also got involved in the New York Needs You non-profit. What does that organization do, and what were your responsibilities?

NYNY — now America Needs You — worked with first generation college students, predominantly students of color, and paired them with mentors in their 20s to 40s who were successful in their careers and could help their mentees navigate the challenges of higher education, the working world, and building networks of people that can help them achieve their goals and dreams. Most of the mentors were people of color, and the organization tried to pair people with similar lived experiences or interests. NYNY provided weekend professional development workshops for mentees that mentors also attended with topics like how to write and deliver an elevator speech, how to network with people, how to negotiate, etc.

I felt a bit of impostor syndrome at the time because my job was to observe and document the workshops while providing insight as to how the workshop could have been more effective or engaging. Meanwhile, I’d be in the back taking notes for myself on how to draft and write an elevator speech, how to meaningfully network with people, how to negotiate, etc. — I’d never been taught that before! I personally learned a lot from sitting in those sessions, so I can only imagine how beneficial it was for the young people participating in the program.

In 2014, you were selected as a National Urban Fellow. Your fellowship was at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, and you continued working for them for three years after your 14-month fellowship ended. What is the focus of the Foundation? What kind of work did you do there?

In the Foundation’s words, “The Annie E. Casey Foundation is devoted to developing a brighter future for millions of children at risk of poor educational, economic, social and health outcomes.” Casey does this in a number of ways, including focusing on child welfare and juvenile justice system reform, investing in work to reduce the number of Opportunity Youth (young adults disconnected from both work and school) in America, place-based investing, and building bodies of research and data to support evidence-based decision making supportive of the welfare of children and youth at the local, state, and national level. Casey also has an explicit focus on Race Equity and Inclusion and operationalizing REI in their work and the work of their partners and grantees. Casey is one of the largest national foundations in the country, and as such, it has significant influence and reach in many ways that I could not even comprehend prior to working there. It’s hard to explain in a paragraph the many ways the Foundation works, but suffice it to say, their influence is significant nationally.

I was fortunate enough to be placed on a place-based team, the Baltimore Civic Site, as a National Urban Fellow, and stayed on as a Program Associate in the Education Portfolio of BCS after my fellowship concluded. I was primarily responsible for a key education investment on the east side of Baltimore and out-of-school time and summer enrichment grantmaking. 

The Foundation is full of intelligent, good people with deep experience “in the trenches” – doing work as practitioners or organizational or systems leaders in service of young people. At the same time, I observed that in the philanthropic field in general, it can be easy to fall prey to the ivory tower aspects and relative security of philanthropy and in the process become more and more disconnected from the people you are trying to serve.

The Baltimore Civic Site team that I worked with was brilliant and not at all complacent. I think that is because we were working on behalf of the city we were living in, and the people our decisions impacted were our neighbors, at our community meetings, and in our lives. The insanely smart, grounded, humble people on my team also had shared values about upholding principles of race equity and inclusion, hearing and trusting community voice, and sharing power. I learned a lot from my team and feel so lucky to have worked with those specific people in that context. It was a very formative experience for me.

How would you compare or contrast living and working in Baltimore with your time in New York City?

I think New York City is the greatest city in the world in many respects, but Baltimore is my heart city. I miss the racial and ethnic diversity and 24 hour nature of New York City, functional public transit (though I hear the subway is terrible these days), and exceptional pizza and bagels. I also feel like I truly became an adult in New York City. But New York frustrated me as it is such an incredibly expensive place to live and gave me a distorted sense of affordability. My jaw practically dropped when I moved to Baltimore and could get a cocktail that was six, not fifteen dollars. It also seemed so hard to connect with people and make a difference in my community in New York — it felt really cliquey and isolating at times. On the flip side, Baltimore has an incredible resilience and warmth that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. There is so much heart in this city and so much passion to improve, fix, and never give up. We have a lot of challenges in Baltimore, but the determination to make things right and the homegrown power present in neighborhoods and communities is the true definition of awesome. I also think Baltimore is a beautiful city. It also helps that the mortgage on my house is less than what I was paying for a rent stabilized, two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. And good pizza DOES exist in Baltimore. (And the bagel game is really not terrible, though there is room for growth.)

You left the Annie E. Casey Foundation in April of 2017 to start working at Baltimore’s Promise. What does Baltimore’s Promise do?

Baltimore’s Promise is a collective impact effort aimed at improving outcomes at a population level for young people in Baltimore ages 0 to 24.” Collective Impact” is a fancy way of saying that we all need to work together, across sectors and communities, to improve outcomes for all of the city’s children. The work of BP is sometimes tricky to explain, so the metaphors I usually use are that we are air traffic controllers (or cat wranglers) of stakeholders who are all working to help young people in Baltimore City. 

Baltimore’s Promise does a lot of things, including working to coordinate resources, influence, and power behind efforts that have the ability to change systems in ways that positively impact many youth at one time. The strategies and initiatives we advance are data-informed, both quantitative and qualitative, and are developed with a Race Equity and Inclusion lens. To this end it is critical for us to ensure that those represented in the data — those with lived experiences related to the issues we are working on — are partners and at the table when we are thinking about this work and developing, implementing, and evaluating our work. 

What are two or three initiatives or programs that you’ve been involved with that you are most proud of?

I’m the Deputy Director of Baltimore’s Promise, so I have both an internal and external facing role. Since I joined the organization in April 2017, the entire staff of what was then four has transitioned and grown to nine core staff, five initiative-specific staff, and one intern. I am most proud of helping to build a truly amazing, diverse team of people that are insightful, compassionate, curious, and super competent. It is a privilege to work with and learn from everyone, and I have a lot of faith in the team to lead and implement a lot of important work happening in Baltimore City.

One collaborative effort that I have been involved with since I started at BP is Grads2Careers (G2C), a partnership effort between Baltimore City Public Schools and the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development. On a programmatic level, G2C is working to establish a pathway for recent Baltimore City Public Schools graduates (who are not planning to enter college full-time within the next year) into career-track jobs in growing industries, on the path to a family-supporting wage. G2C officially kicked off in 2018 and will serve around 500 students by 2021. 

At face, it may just seem like a direct service effort, but at a systems level we are working together to figure out a more effective way to prevent youth disconnection given its extreme prevalence in Baltimore. Consider the data, based on a longitudinal study of Baltimore City Public Schools’ Class of 2009: 26 percent of city schools’ graduates do not enter the workforce or pursue post-secondary education or training in the fall after graduation. The median annual income for disconnected city schools’ graduates six years after high school graduation is roughly $11,000. Fewer than 12% attained either a two- or four-year degree six years after graduation. 

G2C is just as much about transforming systems and rethinking the relationship between schools and work as it is about working to ensure 500 recent graduates don’t show up in similar data six years after graduation. Through implementing G2C, the education and workforce systems in Baltimore are learning new ways of working with each other, more closely and in a proactive and coordinated fashion, than ever before. I’m really grateful to be a part of this work because I can see it having a lasting impact on the way young people understand their options post-high school and how they are supported in realizing their goals.

I’m also proud of the work we have done to be the administrative backbone of the Baltimore Summer Funding Collaborative. I actually helped build the SFC while I was at the Casey Foundation, so I am happy that I can stay involved in that work while at BP. The SFC started as an effort to make things easier for summer program providers, since prior to 2015, they had to submit a zillion applications to a zillion funders in search of funding. It was a waste of a lot of providers’ time and effort. We built a “common application” of sorts in late 2014 and early 2015, and three funders were at the table at the time, including Casey. We launched it, and shortly after we each made our first round of decisions, the Baltimore Uprising, spurred by the murder of Freddie Grey, occurred in April 2015. It was a really difficult and important time for the city. The Uprising spurred some funders to seek out ways to infuse money into youth programming and provide supportive outlets for young people in the midst of increasing violence in the city and in response to the trauma many experienced from what happened. We just so happened to have the infrastructure to do that through the SFC and were able to help facilitate an additional $2 M+ of grantmaking very quickly, getting money into the hands of community-based programs and opening relationships between programs and funders who have had historically closed grantmaking processes or did not fund that those types of organizations or programs in the past. 

I think originally many of the funders that joined in saw this as a one time infusion of funds; yet, most of those funders have stayed at the table ever since, recognizing the importance of summer opportunities and benefits of leveraged funds. Summer programs help prevent summer learning loss, keep young people active and engaged over the summer, help young people explore their interests, and importantly, keep them safe and fed. We have since evolved from just being a common application to helping improve the quality of programs through technical assistance and professional development and helping coordinate funding to ensure that program budgets are funded as a whole as much as possible. I am excited to see the work continue to evolve.

We have a lot of really transformative projects in process and in the works, but I will stop there since that was a whole bunch of paragraphs! All in all, I am glad and grateful to be a part of Baltimore’s Promise. I’m also glad that the acronym BP now means something positive in my mind instead of something awful and petroleum-related.

Yeah dude, I was just being polite. Didn’t need a dissertation on all the amazing stuff you’re doing. Sheesh.

I assume as a Baltimore citizen, you have completed the required viewing of The Corner and The Wire. How would you say the problems of Baltimore have evolved since those aired?

Oh dear, I haven’t watched The Corner. Does this mean I have to leave Baltimore? I hope not. I love this place.

These days we are in the news for our high crime rate, though personally I don’t know that the problems of Baltimore have “evolved” so much as have manifested in different ways over time. I say this because the root causes of Baltimore’s issues have been consistent since the city’s founding – structural and institutional racism and the interpersonal and internalized racism that flows from these oppressive factors. Investment in Baltimore still follows the same redlining boundaries established to keep people of color and Jews out of the whitest areas of Baltimore. Schools here are still de facto segregated despite a wealth of evidence that shows that racially and economically diverse educational settings improve outcomes for all students in that setting.

I forgot to respond regarding The Wire. I watched the first three seasons and was too emotionally exhausted to watch the fourth, the education season. I need to go back to it. My observation is that people from Baltimore, born and raised, take umbrage to the idea that The Wire is an accurate representation of Baltimore, whereas people not from Baltimore are more quick to say that it is more accurate than not. I will plead the fifth on that.

My wife is from Baltimore and thinks The Wire is amazing. So there. And you might want to save The Corner for when you’re so ecstatic that you need something to crush you emotionally.

If you were named benevolent dictator of Baltimore (or Maryland), what single action would you take by fiat?

Oooh, that’s a tough question. There are so many things I want to say, but what is top of mind right now is reforming education funding. Currently the State of Maryland has a once in a generation opportunity to transform our education funding formula via the Kirwan Commission and its findings and recommendations for a more equitable education funding system. If the state legislature can innovate and fully fund these recommendations, and our governor learns to care about education, it could be a game changer.

However, if I were the benevolent dictator, my reform would be to do away with the reliance on local property taxes for public education funding. Between 80 and 90% of per pupil funding is from local property taxes and state sources. This just rewards affluent districts for having an affluent tax base and penalizes poor districts for having a weak tax base. This is a ridiculous notion given that concentrating poverty was and is by design as a function of structural racism. I’d have funding much more centralized at the state level with a funding formula that heavily accounts for communities experiencing trauma, high concentrations of poverty, high levels of refugee resettlement, etc. by directing additional resources for the wraparound supports needed to ensure that young people from those communities can get to the same baseline of safety, wellness, and health that affluent communities take for granted as a first step before even getting to instruction-related funding. 

Also, I would legalize marijuana and heavily regulate and tax it with the majority of that revenue supporting universal Pre-K, public education, and occupational skills training opportunities. And I’d ensure that the new business owners that benefit from legalization are predominantly people of color given how disproportionately they were and are targeted for drug-related offenses.

Okay, that was three or four things, but whatever, I’M THE DICTATOR!

How much are you looking forward to the amazing opportunity to harmonize with me again in March? Or I guess, maybe I should just ask this way: do you find any opportunities or make time to sing and play music or are you guilty of crimes against humanity?

Boy, this is a Geraldo Rivera-esque question if I’ve ever heard one. What is happening in March? Are you trying out for America’s Got Talent again? (Seriously, I have no idea what is happening in March.)

Dude, it’s the second annual alumni show? Hello? Is this thing on?

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