By Kyair Butts,
Special to the AFRO

Imagine a world where the best of the best shared their insights with others without ego, red tape or hoops to jump through. Think of how you feel when you successfully collaborate on a project, idea or task. The results at completion usually far exceed what one can do alone. 

There is power when excellence is coached. Education should be shared among all who are willing to participate in the exchange—and this is where Baltimore City Public Schools gets it right, with the Opportunity Culture initiative. 

Opportunity Culture is truly an innovative and immersive experience for educators to share their excellence and coach others all while moving students in meaningful ways. The program began in 2019 with only three locations. At the end of 2021, City Schools boasted 20 Opportunity Culture sites.

Take a look at the City Schools website for Opportunity Culture successes. Teachers who are excellent at their craft have the opportunity to lead other educators in moving student data, collaborating in teams and working to build a learning-centered culture at their school. There are a myriad of benefits—both tangible and intangible, but consider how it can empower and encourage high-performing teachers to take on leadership positions that directly impact students.

One of the biggest hurdles in creating and sustaining a network of strong mentors is asking high performing teachers to leave the classroom. The obvious rub being: what happens to kids when excellent teachers leave the classroom? This innovative model that Opportunity Culture offers allows high performing teachers to retain a lighter teaching load, but coach, collaborate and communicate excellence for a small group of teachers. This allows for the mentors to still engage in their practice, but also coach others so a larger number of students are impacted. 

Innovation has changed how students experience learning. According to the Baltimore City Schools website, “At Holabird Academy, more than 90 percent of students experience collaborative teaching thanks to Opportunity Culture, and their scores are steadily rising…at Cecil Elementary School, students are boasting the highest math scores in its Community Learning Network.” 

Your educational experience, like many things in America, is based on a variety of factors, like socio-economics. Were you lucky enough to have a  neighborhood school with a skilled, trained kindergarten teacher? Were you afforded a chance to attend a high-performing middle school? Did your high school have enough resources to employ an administrative team that fostered innovation and creativity amongst the staff? 

In many instances of schooling in America, luck isn’t good enough—it’s offensive to pray for luck in education. In a city where the majority student population is Black and Brown this isn’t a moral coda, it’s a deeply personal commitment to doing better by our youth that shouldn’t be luck based, but instead data informed. Can you imagine needing luck at the dentist’s office? We expect other professional career areas to engage in excellence informed by innovation, research and data. 

Education in Baltimore is making small headway with real gains

Opportunity Culture takes the typical hierarchal structure of schools and gives the structure permission to be “middle out” (teachers leading the change) instead of “top down” (the administrative leadership team is omniscient and omnipotent). The “middle out” approach allows those closest to students to lead conversations and make the culture teacher-led and student-centered.

“These Multi-Classroom Leaders provide guidance, co-teaching, observation and feedback, best-practice modeling, instruction to students and weekly coaching,” according to information released by Baltimore City Public Schools in 2021. “Some groups may discuss innovative ways to encourage student participation in class. Others may explore integrating the arts in instruction to engage students differently. No matter the discussions, they’re all intended to ensure students are getting the high-quality education they deserve.”

The magic of teaching continues to be the joy that students experience because of their teachers leading them through a changing world. One thing that shouldn’t change is the need for imagination and innovation. 

City Schools’ has magic in its hands with the Opportunity Culture program because teacher-leaders are using their experience and expertise to guide their peers. In turn, more teachers are now moving students and making the educational space work better for the students. If there’s an opportunity to get better, will you take it? City Schools did. 

There’s more work to be done for sure, but Opportunity Culture is proving that collaboration can still produce magic.

Kyair Butts is the 2019 Teacher of the Year for Baltimore City Public Schools.