To get to the Southwest Charter School from downtown Baltimore, where I live on the fifth floor of an artist residence, I cross into what is called Pig Town. I used to live in southwest Baltimore, SoWeBo for short, and I know what I'll be driving through: prostitutes who look much older than they are; bars that stay open and busy most hours of the day and night; a litany of street drugs being sold on every corner by teenagers; whole rows of houses—set in between warehouses and barbed wire fences—that are boarded up; trash so evenly littered it looks like a legitimate layer of earth; crime tape covering at least one corner within earshot, the smell of fried food mixed with the nearby smokestacks of industry creeping down the potholed pavement; a stack of rained-on teddy bears and deflated balloons tied around a telephone pole memorializing someone who inevitably died too young—maybe in a drive-by, but almost always due to some involvement with drugs.
"Most of the men in my life get shot," Annabelle tells me nonchalantly over a Mediterranean spread just after winter break. We meet like this, once a week for lunch, every week. She and her family spent some of their time over the holidays visiting her cousin who was in critical condition after being shot—a recovery didn't look hopeful. Annabelle was unsurprised.
Since the start of this school year, I have been lunch buddies with a ten-year-old girl in a public charter school in southwest Baltimore. For this story, I'll call her Annabelle. The other children in this program will also have pseudonyms, but their stories are true.
The lunch buddy program was started by Annabelle's fourth-grade teacher, Josh Rothschild, who goes by Mr. Peace in the classroom. I met Mr. Peace years ago, more than a decade, when he was a heart hypnotherapist with an office down the hall from where I took yoga classes. Now, and for the last five years, he's been an elementary school teacher with Baltimore City Public Schools, and his students have shown a dramatic improvement, academically and socially, with his mentorship program, which pairs students with volunteers for lunch once a week.
"It's such a wide range," Mr. Peace says of the mentors' backgrounds. I'm a musician and writer, for instance.
Some of Mr. Peace's fourth-grade students suffer from the effects of lead paint poisoning, or have learning and behavioral disabilities. Five of them started the year at a kindergarten reading level.
"One is a nurse," he says, ticking off each name listed on a sheet of paper stacked in the middle of his clipboard, "Another is a stay-at-home mom who works in accounting." One is getting into social work, one works for a nonprofit. There's a university professor, a rabbi, a retired person, someone who works for social security, another professor, a physical therapist, an artist, and an entrepreneur who creates drones.
As for the students, there are 23 in his fourth-grade class this year. Some suffer from the effects of lead paint poisoning, or have learning and behavioral disabilities. Five of his students started the year at a kindergarten reading level.
"So we are talking about kids who sit in a fourth-grade classroom and don't understand what is being said and really can't be adapted," he says.
Mr. Peace gives the example of one student who, like 56,000 other at-risk Baltimore children, possibly suffers from lead paint poisoning. He gives the student a problem—19 + 1—but the student cannot follow.
"It's very hard to get a student who cannot add 19 + 1 to understand any part of the math in the fourth-grade curriculum," Mr. Peace explains. The best he can hope for is that by asking the same question repeatedly, the student will eventually memorize the answer.
According to Emily Marshall, the school's special educator, most students at the school get free or reduced lunches, in addition to about 25 percent who qualify for IEPs, or Individualized Educational Programs. Students who qualify for special educational services and IEPs have been shown to have trouble learning due to mental, physical, and/or emotional disabilities.
"Many of my students are carrying physical and emotional responsibilities beyond their years, such as caring for younger siblings, worrying about survival needs like food and clothes, dealing with racism, stressing about the family's job, housing, mental illness, addictions," she says. "Children are impressionable. They feel the stress of the family—mom working all day, dad working all night or the other way around, or grandma trying to help with math homework who doesn't really understand the math homework. Unless you're actually immersed in it a little bit more, I think you miss it."
"I want to try new things," Annabelle told me. "Like sushi."
My lunch buddy, Annabelle, has a big family and a solid support system of women, but her mother works nights so they often miss each other. She often helps with child care for her sister's younger children. She's a pretty solid reader but she prefers math, were she to choose. She'd like to see the ocean one day, which is about two hours away, and she'd like to learn how to sew. I bring my sewing machine to school each week, and she's got it down—a tote bag and three friendship band bracelets to show for it. Sometimes we work on homework or other school projects before we share lunch, but mostly I'm there to be a consistent, fun, and positive adult in her life.
"The kids are challenged," Mr Peace says. "They might be stressed and they might not want to be there. So they might see you as just another part of the system that they don't like. But when you come at lunch and recess, you can just have fun."
After working on whatever activity we choose for about 25 minutes, we share lunch. The first day, Annabelle refused to eat the school lunch and I could see why. (It hardly resembled food but claimed to be fried chicken.) So I asked her what she likes.
"Anything," she said shyly, averting my eyes. I pressed for more information.
"I want to try new things...like sushi," she said. Since that first week, here's what we have learned: she likes sushi and hummus and Nutella; she does not like Korean spices like hot pepper flakes and fish sauce; Indian food (particularly chicken with red curry) is a hit; and international confections—other than sweet mochi—always win.
The week after we tried sushi for the first time, I became something of a celebrity among the students.
"It caused a bit of an uproar. All of the students wanted a lunch buddy so they would bring sushi," Mr. Peace says. "Most kids don't bring their lunch and most kids hate the school lunch." Half of his students have lunch buddies, but nearly all students would like one.
Mr. Peace and his fiancée cook, and like to grow some of, the food they eat, so he places an importance on food in his personal life. While realizing that may be a stretch for his students, he sees the lunch buddy program as an opportunity to expose them to new foods they otherwise may never have known about, which has a dramatic effect on their lives.
"What we're talking about is building a vocabulary for kids," Mr. Peace says. "We're talking about a group of students, a group of members of our society, that is very closed off. We teach some children who have very little exposure outside of what school can provide to life beyond their neighborhood."
Overall, the students in Baltimore City Public Schools are struggling to pass standardized tests. Meanwhile, a $129 million deficit was recently announced, and a plan for how to bridge that gap, amidst broad public protests, has not been made clear.
Judson Porter, who oversaw the Baltimore City Public School finances from 1984 through 1997, called the current budget crisis "extraordinary."
"It's always a challenge," he says, "to have the financial capacity and the availability of resources to meet the requirements of IEP of every student." Some educators have confirmed that it isn't possible to attend to the actual needs of every student with an IEP because there aren't enough special educators to go around.
"The best you're asking for that kid is that they will stay quiet for 30 minutes while you teach a lesson they don't understand. It's not a good scenario."
Marshall, the special educator, says that one student who is having a difficult time can take the entire classroom down for the day. "They just need a little concentration and calming and planning and a little care," she says. "We could have a person in each classroom who did that. We just don't have the resources for it, and now the district says that teachers and paraeducators might be cut. So instead of more help, our students will have less? We could easily have an academic person and a counselor person, a trauma-informed person in each classroom in the city. We need lunch buddies. We need parents. We need people who are trained." She, like many teachers, fear what might happen if students increase to 30 to 40 per class, as the turnover rate for teachers is already high.
"The big push is for inclusion," Mr. Peace says. He adds that the current administration at the city level doesn't want any students to be stigmatized and for socialization reasons, "and to an extent you can understand where they're coming from, but it's the same thing where well-meaning people aren't in the class to see what it's like for a kid who can't read or understand first-grade material and sits in a fourth-grade classroom. The best you're asking for that kid is that they will stay quiet for 30 minutes while you teach a lesson they don't understand. It's not a good scenario."
"You have an especially needy population that needs more to be prepared to have the same opportunity to learn that other students have and the resources aren't there to support it," Porter says. "If you have one-time solutions to a structural gap, you run out of one-time solutions."
Another student in lunch buddy program, Danielle, has missed 60 of the first 100 days of school. Some of those days, she will get to school around 11 AM, but she will have already missed her language arts.
Danielle is sometimes expected to care for an infant during the school week. She and her family have been staying with a relative recently, and no one is waking her up to get her off to school.
"Fourth graders have a resistance to school but they generally want to be here. She wants to be here. She hates that she fails the tests," Mr. Peace says.
"We've got parents in and out of jail, in and out of rehab, on and off drugs, violence all around, the children have been sexually assaulted, they've been physically beaten, neglected. They come to school without hygiene, they come to school and they haven't been fed in a few days. We have stories that are pretty extreme. That's not every kid, but we have a few at our school," he explains.
When Danielle's lunch buddy, an entrepreneur and business owner, first heard her story, she wondered how she could relate. But after rolling the dice over a board game, gorging on gooey homemade brownies—which have now become something of a legend with the class—and ending the first hour with a warm embrace, both felt instantly at ease.
All in all, Mr. Peace's students now are excelling in comparison to the start of the year. At the mid-year test mark, on average, they are up more than one year level in reading and almost a full year in math.
"You have a kid like Danielle with an attendance issue, but the days her lunch buddy is coming are the days I can almost guarantee she'll be in school."
But what stuns me more each week during my lunch with Annabelle is her increasing ability to say what she likes and doesn't like. At first, she was pretty shy about her opinions and would politely spit the half-chewed bite of whatever into a tissue and gingerly toss it in the trashcan, quietly shaking her head. But now she expects me to have heard her. "This has lots of chopped-up peppers in it," she says somewhat disapprovingly. She's already told me twice before that she's not a huge fan. I hadn't heard her, or I conveniently forgot. "You and I, Miss Rachel," she says, "We got different tastes."
"That's really what our job is in a lot of ways," Mr. Peace says, "If we're doing it best, is enlarging the narrative, enlarging the range of experience for these kids so that they're not just stuck. And unless they have contact with people coming from the outside, like a lunch buddy, it's not going to be there for them. It's not a given for these kids."
Mr. Peace started the Lunch Buddy program because he, while attending Berklee College of Music, had participated as a mentor in a similar program.
When he became a teacher, he approached Big Brothers and Big Sisters to get them involved with his class but never heard back. He had already enlisted his mother, fiancée, friends, and a number of people who are a part of his meditation and yoga community, The Peace Community Center, to help as academic volunteers his first year, and the lunch buddy program grew out of that.
"You have a kid like Danielle," he says, "with an attendance issue, but the days her lunch buddy is coming are the days I can almost guarantee she'll be in school. It's hard for her to make an effort to be here. She has to fight her parents sometimes to get to school. But she's more willing to put that fight up if she knows her lunch buddy is going to be here."