While school board elections have become politically polarized in many districts across the country, Baltimore City’s four school board candidates have surprisingly closely aligned views.
In fact, the similarities in viewpoints so outweigh the differences that the common refrain — almost a joke ― at their Oct. 3 debate was that they believe any one of the four would be good additions to the school board. Its members are now all appointed, but city voters next month will get a chance to elect school board members for the first time.
After the debate, one attendee suggested that whoever loses the Nov. 8 election should just apply to be appointed by the mayor for an appointed seat on the 10-member board. The board will become a 12-person board when the two new elected members join.
While none of the candidates holds conservative views, the four would bring different experiences and varying priorities. Two candidates ― Salimah Jasani and Ashley Esposito ― are running with the backing of the Baltimore Teachers Union. Esposito, the mother of a toddler, said she would advocate for the viewpoints of parents and the community, which she believes aren’t considered enough in decision making. Jasani has a deep background in school policy in her current job at an educational consulting company, as well as on-the-ground experience as a former city schools special education teacher.
The other two candidates ― Kwame Kenyatta-Bey and April Curley ― each drew more votes than Jasani in the July primary. Kenyatta-Bey teaches at Patterson High School and has a background in helping students with emotional issues. Curley is a former teacher with experience in business.
During the primary, eight candidates ran for the school board; the top four finishers advanced to the Nov. 8 election and are running against each other. The highest number of votes went to Esposito, who received about 20%, or 26,263, of the votes cast. Curley came in second, Kenyatta-Bey third and Jasani fourth, although the latter two were only separated by a few hundred votes.
April Curley, 35, is a Mount Vernon resident working for the Last Mile Education Fund at the Digital Harbor Foundation. The fund provides support to low-income people pursuing degrees in technology. Curley taught for two years at the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, then worked for Teach For America recruiting Black educators from historically black colleges and universities. Curley has also worked for Google, seeking to bring Black and brown college students to the tech company.
If Democrat Wes Moore is elected Maryland’s governor, Curley believes Baltimore residents should hold him accountable for his campaign promise to focus on the city. Curley also believes the budget needs to be revamped to provide enough money to fund other priorities. For instance, she would remove police officers from schools.
“I do not believe that they have a place in the classroom,” Curley said. “I believe that money is better spent elsewhere, having qualified mental health practitioners in every single one of our schools.”
Curley wants to see a more creative approach to problems from the school board. “One of the things that I feel is lacking in our current board of commissioners and in other elected leaders … is a radical, urgent vision that shakes some people up enough to ask the hard questions of what will it take to drastically shift where we are as a city and in our schools,” she said.
She believes every resident should be able to walk their child up to a school that will provide a safe and effective education.
Salimah Jasani, 30, worked as a special education teacher at Digital Harbor High in Federal Hill from 2014 to 2018. She became a liaison between the Maryland State Department of Education and the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, a nonprofit focused on increasing opportunities for special education students to learn in regular classrooms. Currently, the Pen Lucy resident works for Education Elements, a company that advises school districts on strategic planning with an emphasis on taking community needs into account.
She said students need to be held to higher standards. She believes a grade of 60 should not be a passing grade, as it is now, in the city schools. Not enough is expected of students in predominantly Black cities, she said. But she wouldn’t hold back students, citing research that shows it rarely changes their academic trajectory. “If you hold back a student and make them repeat the grade … they’re just going to fail again because the instruction didn’t work. That is actually the issue that we’re not talking about.”
Jasani would start to shift the culture by making sure that teachers are better trained. “Because somewhere deep within us, we haven’t questioned whether I actually believe my students” can do this, she said. Instruction needs to change, with a focus on smaller class sizes and more personalized teaching.
She also would work on improving school buildings. “The environments [of] our kids’ learning is critically important, not only to their feelings of belonging in schools, but also research shows that it impacts the brain development of a child … from a neuroscience point of view. A lot of our buildings don’t reflect that.”
Ashley Esposito, 38, works as an IT analyst with the Maryland Department of Human Services. The Violetville resident moved to the city in 2016 and chose a house in the neighborhood where she wanted to send her child to school.
One of the issues she is most passionate about is trying to prevent the closing of schools, calling it “a hill that I will die on.”
“I believe it should be an absolute last resort, because when you permanently close a school, you destabilize the community,” Esposito said. “You destabilize every single community group that was operating out of their facilities. We know that students have been displaced and then displaced again because that school closed, too. So imagine the impact that it has for those students or for those teachers that have to start from scratch.”
She believes laws or policies that use enrollment as a measure for determining school funding should change.
“So I don’t believe that we should be permanently closing any school and I do think that there are resources that we could tap into on a state level to secure funding for revitalizing schools,” Esposito said.
Kwame Kenyatta-Bey, 68, teaches U.S. History at Patterson High School to students whose second language is English. He has raised three grandchildren who have attended city schools, the last of whom graduated this year.
He believes the arts should be embedded in courses throughout the system. “Arts are the key to civilization. The ability to collaborate, the ability to foresee a future. One of the things that we have a problem with in Baltimore City and a lot of urban centers is a lack of vision and a lack of creativity,” he said. While there is focus on the STEM fields, the arts aren’t funded, he said.
The city’s schoolchildren, he said, aren’t taught “how to paint a Rembrandt,” how to write novels, or how to talk and understand somebody else’s point of view.
”I am a proponent of the arts and to find ways to integrate it in every single thing we do,” he said.