Lillie Ellis has lost trust in Maryland schools.

Fresh from the funeral of a 16-year-old shot to death in Annapolis last month, she addressed the Anne Arundel County school board Wednesday about a new charter school hoping to reach more brown and Black students.

“As an active and involved community member, it has been a painful journey over the last 15 years watching former students go to jail or die in the streets where they live,” Ellis said, reading carefully from her written statement. “Our young Black men are intelligent and capable. Like all other children, they want to learn and be successful.

“Yet this will not happen if our state education system continues to fail to educate them in ways that affirm their learning differences, attend to their social-emotional needs, appreciate their culture, set high expectations and respect them as unique individuals.”

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Turning your children over to someone else requires trust. You put your kids on the bus for the first day of kindergarten or watch them drive off for the start of their senior year and believe they’ll come home safe and ever-so-slightly better educated.

Yet, as most Maryland students return to classes next week, it’s no longer a given that parents have that trust. Home-schooling rose 44% statewide through pandemic school closures, although it appears to be dropping back this fall. According to some observers, volunteerism and PTA membership are down.

Whether the cause is lingering resentment over COVID closures, failure to reach Black and brown students, violence in schools, shootings or a political environment that puts education at the center of warring social agendas — the most important issue of the coming school year just might be building trust.

“I think we’re at a crossroads,” said Michelle Corkadel, an Anne Arundel Board of Education member. “And a lot of this is coming from other sources.”

Mistrust has always been there for some.

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We’re a few generations removed from the end of legal segregation in schools, yet many minority students start school behind their peers and never catch up. Educators, trying to resolve a problem much bigger than the classroom, just don’t seem able to grasp it, let alone solve it.

“There is a lack of trust from people who went to the school system who didn’t get much from it,” said Thornell Jones, a retired IBM executive who studies equitable education for the Caucus of African American Leaders of Anne Arundel County. “But there’s also a lack of trust in society.”

Parents of special education students often lack trust in the system. They say federal mandates were never fully funded, inconsistencies between policy and practice leave their children without the help they need, and having to act like a cop enforcing the rules creates contentious relationships with schools.

Sometimes, it seems as if schools lose sight of special ed kids because it’s hard and expensive. That was never more clear than four years ago when an Annapolis student choked to death in an understaffed county special education center.

“They try to be transparent with special education families, but a lot of the information that comes to us as parents has been sent up and down the leadership chain of the school district,” said Rich Ceruolo, director of public policy for the 1,500-member Parent Advocacy Consortium. “Our kids sometimes can’t even express to us what’s gone on during the day and, when they can and we find out what’s not happening, it gets really contentious.”

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Mistrust of schools spread faster than COVID when schools in Maryland closed in-person classes for almost two years during the pandemic. It may have gone endemic when they reopened only to have a shortage of school bus drivers make it maddeningly hard to get kids to school.

Across the Potomac in Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin capitalized on concerns about the teaching of critical race theory — though it is not currently taught in K-12 schools there — and mistrust over how schools deal with changing ideas on gender identity to win the governor’s mansion in 2022. That failed to roll over Maryland, where candidates who ran on school distrust mostly lost in the biggest counties and statewide.

Yet it still exists, waiting for the next school board elections. Moms for Liberty, a group built on a distrust of schools, has chapters in 10 Maryland counties.

“I think parents’ eyes were definitely opened during the government’s response to COVID and the decisions that were being made by school boards and even by state school boards were in opposition to what parents thought was best for kids,” said Kit Hart, chair of the Carroll County chapter.

“They are trying to create a chasm between parent and child. They think that they know what is best for children more than parents do,” Hart added.

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It’s Mark Bedell’s job to restore trust in Anne Arundel County. Starting his second year as county schools superintendent, he sees the cure as transparency, whether it involves pushing back school start times, a shortage of teachers and bus drivers, gender identity, rising discipline numbers or sinking scores on statewide math tests.

“I don’t know how you survive in a job this difficult without having it,” he said. “The only way that you’re gonna be able to restore trust is you can’t just report on the things that are good and positive.”

Do that, he says, and people will fill the information void with their worst fears. And you can’t avoid talking with people who lack trust, including Moms For Liberty.

“I’ll be the first to tell you publicly; I don’t agree with everything that they’re bringing to the table,” Bedell said. “But I do think there are some things that I need to listen to and I need to figure out if there’s validity, do my research, and then come back and give them an answer on some of their concerns. And it’s no different than what I would do when I meet with the Caucus of African American Leaders.”

The ultimate symptom of lost trust might be when someone leaves. If home-school numbers are one sign, then Anne Arundel may be regaining trust. It had some of the highest numbers of home-schoolers in the state last year, but that has fallen by more than half.

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Corkadel, the school board member, believes it is getting worse. She wants a constituent service office like the one she led in the last county government administration and wants her colleagues to take more time to communicate with parents about decisions before the board.

As in a lot of places, Annapolis’ unique history contributes to a loss of trust. In the 1960s, government leaders busted up poor but vibrant Black communities, pushing many of their residents to isolated parts of the city where they remain today.

Black educators who provided important leadership dispersed as well, often out of Annapolis. The result has been a loss of education as a shared goal. By some estimates, 40% of Black and brown kids aren’t ready for kindergarten and never catch up.

On Wednesday, the school board voted 7-0 to approve the proposed New Village Academy to address that legacy.

Romey Pittman, founder and executive director of the academy, spent the last four years teaching at Annapolis High. It confirmed her belief in a better way to reach students.

“Being back in the classroom has sharpened my understanding that reengaging students is not just a matter of new curriculum inputs or great teaching. It’s a structural issue,” she told the school board.

So board members agreed with Bedell’s recommendation to trust someone else to find a solution for one part of what ails education.

“This is not that there’s 250 students in our schools that aren’t succeeding and this model may work for them,” board member Melissa Ellis said. “This is actually a model that would work for all students.”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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