Opinion Piece #2
At Renaissance Academy, an alternative high school in West Baltimore, many students are traumatized. They are traumatized by virtue of being children who were raised in poverty, little support at home, and the inability to healthily process these traumatic events at such a young age. As a result, they experience toxic stress, which can “disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years”. This issue of trauma among students in urban areas is certainly not unique to Baltimore, as a class action lawsuit was recently filed against the Compton Unified School District calling for schools to be held accountable to student trauma in Southern California. But the difference between most schools and Renaissance Academy is that in Renaissance, students have Principal Nikkia Rowe.
A community leader who has received both local and national attention, Principal Rowe has a clear understanding of what she must provide for her students. The school has an intensive mentoring program in place and also occasionally serves as a food kitchen for students. What is more is that Principal Rowe also has a clear understanding of the outside forces that deeply affect her students and community. “In Baltimore City what you see in particular communities, especially ours, is you have for decades a sanctioning for ‘This will be a dumping ground for the incredibly poor.’”, she told our research group during our visit to the school. “And when you deal with generational poverty it creates this thing in children that allows them to live a self-fulfilling prophecy. It also creates a deep sense of hopelessness no matter what I do. Whether it’s common core, whether it’s an afro-centric curriculum, the reality is it’s incredibly difficult to overcome hopelessness. When you see that in a kid’s eyes, it can break you as an adult. What we are seeing isn’t a result of common core. It’s more a result of institutionalized poverty. Poverty spawns violence. And we know that poverty is a construct of race. And race is a construct of supremacy”.
Principal Rowe also spoke on her way of dealing with student conflicts. “Bring them into a circle and ask ‘What happened? How do you feel?’, You NEVER ask them ‘Why?’, but you’re able to get them to tear down those layers and you get to, ‘Okay, who have you harmed and how do you remove that harm so that it never happens again?’”. She called the practice “circling” and claimed to spend 60 percent of her day doing it. She also acknowledged that while counseling service are in place, they are not heavily utilized due to the stigma surrounding it and the complication of parental consent.
As it can be seen, Renaissance Academy serves as a central harbor in the neighborhood of West Baltimore and Ms. Rowe serves as its caring leader. The support and education provided here must be fostered, continued, and encouraged in the future to bolster any result that can come about. Closing the Renaissance Academy would only produce harms and cut short the wonderful opportunities being created in the school every day. As such, the school should not be shuttered and threatened, but rather continuously worked with to maximize positive results.