Toward the beginning of the new movie “Step,” you see a picture of Cori Grainger as a baby. She’s being held by her mother, who is 15, dressed for her junior prom and sitting on a Mickey Mouse bedspread.
Among the girls who graduated from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women in 2016, Cori is one of the lucky ones. She’s poor but has a determined and supportive mother and a stepfather. Many of the 120 girls who came to this charter school when it opened in 2009 have been taught, mentored, nurtured, monitored and disciplined by the faculty and staff there.
The results are impressive, indeed inspiring. Not only was every member of the first graduating class admitted to college, they also formed a successful step-dancing team. The girls are taught self-discipline, teamwork, how to organize their time and how to keep from getting distracted by boys, family dysfunction and neighborhood crime.
In recent years, though, these kind of inner-city charter schools have come in for a great deal of criticism from education scholars and activists who claim the schools’ strict discipline and single-minded focus on college admissions is symbolic of a “white savior” mentality. As an article on the Web site The Progressive explains, “People of color in this country, specifically black people, have rarely had agency in the pedagogy and policy that affects their children. NYC charter schools playing the role of white saviors does little to change this.”
And then there was Randi Weingarten’s recent accusation that school choice is a more “polite cousin[s] of segregation” and that the movement, which includes advocacy for vouchers as well as charter schools, has its roots in “racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia and homophobia.”
It’s interesting to note, then, that Baltimore Leadership seems to be run almost entirely by black women. The principal, the college counselor, the step coach — these are the women who seem to be the most demanding, the most involved in students’ personal lives, the most willing to criticize the girls and demand a higher level of effort and performance.
And Baltimore Leadership isn’t alone. According to a new study by the National Center for Education Statistics, a larger percentage of charter-school principals are black or Hispanic than traditional school principals.
There are probably a variety of reasons for this. Charter schools are concentrated in urban areas and they’re more likely to be new — meaning younger workers who are racial minorities don’t have to be in the system for 40 years to get promoted.
But it’s also true that the men and women running the schools may have a decent idea of the curriculum and messages that students in these impoverished areas need in order to succeed. The study, which hasn’t been released yet, also found (according to EdWeek), “A higher percentage of charter school principals reported that they thought they had a major influence on setting performance standards for students, establishing curriculum, and in determining professional development for teachers.”
No doubt, this is an important part of success for these leaders, no matter their race. After all, they have a coach who herself dropped out of high school and then went on to earn college and graduate degrees. Her involvement in these young women’s lives has spurred them to greater heights.
Perhaps the most moving scene in the movie happens when the girls are not on screen at all. Their college counselor, Paula Dofat, is in the room with two representatives of a college program that offers mentoring and academic support. Talking about Blessin Giraldo, the star of the step-dancing team with a mediocre academic record, Dofat starts to cry.
The team at Baltimore Leadership has done everything to get Blessin to work harder — even helping her make the honor roll during her senior year. But with a boyfriend telling her not to follow her dreams to New York, a mother who seems indifferent and a world of distractions, Blessin faces an uphill battle. Dofat apologizes for being unprofessional, but pleads with the women, “If we don’t come together for this, this girl is not going to make it.”
Thanks to the care and concern of women like Dofat and charter schools like Baltimore Women’s Leadership, we know she has a chance.
?Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.