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How Can the Education Department Help Baltimore Heal From Violence?

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One key question facing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other policymakers in the wake of the violence that erupted in Baltimore earlier this month following the death of a young man in police custody: Is there anything concrete that the federal government, including the Education Department, can do to help deal with the root of causes of civic unrest in Baltimore and places like it?

The short answer to that question appears to be yes, judging from a press conference Wednesday at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, featuring Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, and others. 

But the longer answer—exactly what shape federal help could take—is still emerging.

The Education Department, for example, is talking to Baltimore about funds available through Project School Emergency Response to Violence program, or PROJECT SERV, intended for communities recovering from traumatic events. (Schools in Newtown, Conn., the site of a fatal mass shooting at an elementary school, benefited recently from the program, as one example.) 

And Perez said the federal government had provided some $5 million in aid, for job training and other purposes, to Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of racially charged riots last year, when an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer. 

There could be similar resources, he said, for Baltimore.

"We are seeking to replicate the model we just put in place," Perez said at a news conference that was streamed live on the internet. "Our goal is to get these resources out with alacrity, and we want to make sure there is significant flexibility" for local communities to ensure that any new money is targeted where it should be. 

And Perez made a big pitch for federal involvement in helping restore the Charm City community after prolonged violence.

"We at the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development," he said, "what we are really are the departments of opportunity.  ... We have come from the federal government making sure we can make a difference in Baltimore. ... Money is not enough. The development of a holistic plan that reflects the values of the community of Baltimore is indispensible." 

Duncan, meanwhile, added that many students in low-income communities like those inWest Baltimore could benefit from greater access to after-school and recreational programs, mentors, and adult role models.

"We need to think about not just a little pilot program, not just small thing, but at scale, " Duncan said, although he did not go into specifics.

Voices Heard

The cabinet officials' comments echo President Barack Obama's statements last week  on the turmoil in Baltimore. The president said that while there's no excuse for violence, it's clear that urban high-poverty areas need greater attention and assistance, including when it comes to K-12 schools. More here.

At Wednesday's news conference, Gregory Thornton, the CEO of the 85,000-student Baltimore City school district, said just getting a call from Duncan in the wake of turmoil following the death of Freddie Gray was a big help.

"He said, 'What can we do, what can Washington do?'" Thornton said. "The prosperity, the happiness of our nation depends on education."

Before the press conference, Duncan, Perez, and others met privately with community members and students to hear their concerns. That in itself mattered, one student said.

"I really wanted to come here because I wanted to have my voice heard," the student said. "I personally told them that we need to have meetings with important people, there needs to be a group of youth that have their voices heard."

The violence has had repercussions for the school district. Baltimore schools were closed April 28, and a number of surrounding districts canceled field trips into the city. Since schools reopened, the district has provided materials to teachers to help students process and discuss the events.

Federal money isn't a brand-new resource for Baltimore. The 85,000-student Baltimore City School District has been a nexus of sorts for the Obama administration's competitive-grant programs. The district takes part in Maryland's $250 million Race to the Top grant, which has financed comprehensive education redesign projects aimed at improving teacher quality, using student data to improve instruction, and fixing-up low-performing schools.

And the city participates in the School Improvement Grant program, as well as Investing in Innovation grants, which are aimed at scaling up promising practices at the district level. At the Wednesday press conference, federal officials also name-checked the White House's "My Brother's Keeper Initiative," which is aimed at improving outcomes for African-American male youth. 

Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan speaks at Frederick Douglass High School during a press conference following a meeting with students  on issues ranging from the past weeks unrest to job opportunities and more, in Baltimore on Wednesday, May 6th.

--Noah Scialom for Education Week

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