Common Conviction, Shared Passion and a Long-Shot Campaign
Though they are separated by eight years, Bill Ferguson ’05 and J.D. Merrill ’13 share first-hand experience in the Baltimore City Public Schools that convinced them that failures are a result of the system, rather than the students’ abilities.
By Bill Giduz
A fifth-generation Marylander from a nurturing and stable family in Rockville, Bill Ferguson ’05 was schooled in well-to-do county schools in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. He experienced little more of Baltimore than Camden Yards baseball stadium and the trendy Inner Harbor district.
He speaks apologetically now about his disinterest at the time in the plight of the 83,000 students enrolled in innercity Baltimore public schools. He grew up assuming success was a product of hard work rather than circumstance. He assumed he would work hard and follow his father’s footsteps into business or banking.
Ferguson first felt his assumptions crumbling his junior year at Davidson. As a hall counselor, he became the confidante for some first-year students who bore the burden of problems they didn’t cause. “I began to see that things may not all depend on your work ethic,” he said. “It opened my mind to the fact that there are structural barriers that prevent people from reaching their potential.”
Nagging doubts about his post-Davidson life led him to attend an informational session about Teach for America, the program that enlists young college graduates to teach in challenging public schools. He left the room motivated and excited, feeling like the program offered the type of personal reward he was seeking.
He graduated with a double major in economics and political science, and accepted an assignment from Teach for America to teach history and U.S. government at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy in southwest Baltimore. It didn’t take him long to recognize the challenges the school faced. “I saw a community of kids who went to school every day, paid attention, and were still reading six grades behind,” Ferguson recalled. He also came to believe the students were innately capable, but were held back by injustices, such as too few classroom materials, dilapidated facilities, and inferior transportation options. For instance, a broken heating system at Vivien T. Thomas elevated the temperature in Ferguson’s classroom to 98 degrees. He couldn’t get it fixed for months. Additionally, he had just 29 desks for his 35 to 40 students, and just 22 history textbooks for 198 students in his history classes. For six months, the doorknob to his classroom was broken, and he had to carry a pair of scissors to open it. “The structural barriers shattered my mindset completely,” Ferguson said. “First I was angry, then depressed, and finally I got motivated to do something about it.”
He decided to establish a “culture of achievement” in his classroom. Each day at the beginning of class, he instructed students to line up. He went down the line shaking hands, looking students square in the eye, and asking them one by one, “Are you going to be phenomenal today?” At the end of class he ushered them out of the room with the question, “Were you phenomenal today?”
“We tried to not let the inequalities bother us,” he said. “I tried to make sure the problems of the past didn’t direct the course of the future.”
The motivational approach had a significant positive effect. Whereas just 35 percent of students passed the U.S. government Maryland High School Assessment the previous year, 68 percent of Ferguson’s students passed. It was the highest score in the school’s history. He is also proud to note that 120 of his 198 students graduated.
Ferguson became a vocal public advocate for support of public education and system-wide reform. Midway through his first year of teaching, he wrote letters to each member of the city council, imploring them to visit Vivien T. Thomas to see its poor condition first hand. The council president was the only respondent, but she agreed that something needed to be done. She hired Ferguson as a part-time community liaison, and he attended community meetings throughout the city on her behalf to assist residents in navigating bureaucratic city services. He also sought to be more influential in the field of education by earning professional credentials, and received his master’s in teaching from the Johns Hopkins School of Education in 2007.
His two years in the classroom left an indelible impression on him. He valued the lessons learned as a racial minority six hours a day, a new understanding of the challenges of public education, and greater empathy for those facing dire life circumstances.
“Families everywhere want the best for their kids,” he said. “Poor families don’t think any differently about that than rich parents. In a lot of cases, poor people just don’t realize their rights, and don’t know how to navigate the system.”
After leaving the classroom, Ferguson maintained contact with the community in part as mentor to a 17-year-old former student. The young man’s heartbreaking situation spoke loudly to Ferguson of the challenges many young students face. Ferguson said, “His mom was a nurse who worked two jobs every day from 7:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., with only Sundays off. His dad was in prison. Seven people, more or less, lived in his row house. Next to them was a house of drug dealers. At one point he had to put a refrigerator and two-by-four against his basement gate to prevent these neighbors from selling drugs in his own basement. That was the reality of his life. To think his problems were a result of not working hard enough is pure fallacy.”
Hoping to further his ability to affect urban renewal on a large scale, Ferguson enrolled in the University of Maryland Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude in 2010. He also worked during that time as a graduate intern for the school-system CEO, Andres Alonso. That experience included his introduction to political campaigning, work on streamlining the school system’s $1.23-billion operational structure, negotiations with the Baltimore Teachers’ Union, and involvement with a number of civic organizations.
The issue of inequality in schools continued to bother him. Baltimore City is governed autonomously from surrounding counties, and inner-city poverty garners little sympathy from the General Assembly at budget time.
Ferguson finally decided that the most effective way to advocate for schools was to run for political office as a state senator, where he could have a voice in budget allocations. “When I told my father, he said I had lost my mind,” Ferguson recalled.
Like Bill Ferguson, J. D. Merrill ’13 is determined to make a difference. His parents are professional musicians living in a comfortable Baltimore suburb, and Merrill attended private schools through junior high. But he found them too conservative. His classmates seemed selfish and petty. He asked himself, “Why are people who have the most also the most selfish?”
He was raised a Quaker and stood out as a liberal. After 9/11, when the U.S. was threatening attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 10-year-old Merrill organized friends for several weeks of protests in front of a local grocery store, where they held blue signs with peace symbols printed, “War is not the Answer.”
Not only did he not fit in, his grades were poor. Following his eighth-grade year, he chose to leave, and began shopping for a new school home.
To his parents’ discomfort, he was attracted by the atmosphere at an old inner-city high school, Baltimore City College (BCC). Founded in 1839, the huge, gothic building crowns the city and waterfront from its perch on the tallest hill in town. Founded as an all-white, all-male school, BCC was transformed into an almost all-black school through white and middle-class black flight from the city in the years following integration. As surprising as it seems for a student like him to choose an inner-city, 90-percent black high school, Merrill said, “It just seemed right.”
Merrill enrolled at BCC in the fall of 2005 as one of a handful of white students. He found his fellow students engaging and thoughtful. Staff and faculty consistently emphasized that BCC’s mission was creating public servants. The walls of the school are dotted with fading group pictures of graduating classes, plaques, and trophies celebrating achievements. Three current Maryland congressmen in Washington are BCC graduates, and the school has a strong and inspiring tradition of support from alumni. The high school class ring that Merrill wears is imprinted with the school motto, palman qui meruit ferat.
“Honor to those who earn it.”
Despite its culture of achievement and excellence, Baltimore City College was not always an easy environment.
Merrill was held up at knife-point one day, and recalled that fights were common on Friday afternoons during baseball practice. But Merrill was convinced that poor students and behavior were not the root of the school’s problems. He believed that the poorly maintained building led kids to care less about going to school. “Though it looks grand on the outside, it’s not welcoming on the inside,” he said. “You have to create an environment where kids want to learn.”
He got involved in student government and served as president of both his sophomore and junior classes. He started a drive to clean the bathrooms, put curtains on the open toilet stalls, and paint over the graffiti. When a planned trip of 160 students to register voters in Virginia for the 2008 presidential election almost fell apart for lack of funding, Merrill quickly organized a group of friends to raise money. A former teacher recalled, “Within 12 hours, J.D.’s fundraising efforts yielded nearly $2,500. This was not an insignificant sum of money to be raised at an urban public school.”
Merrill was also frustrated to find that many of his classmates who were bright and academically capable had low goals and aspirations. He focused on helping them. He said, “I realized that my positive family life gave me cultural capital and knowledge they didn’t have. I tried as a peer to encourage them to see the school the way I saw school.”
When BCC hired a new guidance counselor, Merrill was the first to greet her at the door and introduce her to students and administrators. “I tried to get her up to speed as quickly as possible, because 320 of my classmates needed her,” Merrill said. Ultimately he began spending time in the guidance office, helping students research colleges. “It doesn’t take a lot to push kids in a certain direction. It just takes someone who cares,” he said.
In perusing sign-up sheets for appointments at an upcoming BCC college fair, Merrill noticed that no one had signed up to speak with the representative from Davidson. He looked up the college online and liked what he read. He met with the Davidson admission officer and showed him around BCC. The two maintained contact, and Merrill was ultimately admitted.
He is as active now at Davidson as he was at BCC. He was elected as a freshman class senator, is now sophomore class president, and was appointed as one of only three student members of the committee searching for the college’s next president. His determination and involvement in college life has impressed many of his classmates.
When Jordan Starck ’12 was looking for new blood for his SGA external affairs committee last year, he announced it at a meeting, expecting the usual tepid response. But Merrill signed up enthusiastically.
“I didn’t anticipate what a game-changer he would be,” Starck said. Merrill energized the committee and led it in planning a Dinner at Davidson fundraiser for The Davidson Trust. Starck recalled, “I don’t know how he did it, but he went into public records and searched out local donors to political campaigns, figuring they would be the most likely to attend an event like ours.”
Merrill has put his heart and energy into The Davidson Trust, recognizing its importance in creating the diverse student body that so enriches the community experience. He said, “The Davidson Trust says that the college will meet your need, whatever it is, so that you can enroll here. I don’t think most students realize its impact on making sure finances aren’t an obstacle to admission here.”
Now chair of the external affairs committee, Merrill helped organize the second Dinner at Davidson, which raised $20,500. Starck said, “He’s always working. He never stops. He’s always throwing himself into some cause where he can make an impact.”
Starck recalled seeing Merrill one evening at a Patterson Court party, noting that he was standing at the door greeting people rather than joining the party. “He looked like a politician,” Starck said, “like he was ready to kiss some babies or something!”
Based on their common affiliation with Davidson and interest in public education, it was inevitable that Merrill and Ferguson would join forces. They met in 2009 through “InsideEd,” a blog sponsored by the Baltimore Sun, and maintained loose contact throughout Merrill’s first year at Davidson. When Merrill came home to Baltimore for summer break, Ferguson announced his intentions to run for Senate and asked Merrill to help. Merrill immediately signed on.
They faced an enormous challenge. Ferguson was attempting to unseat 46th district Senator George Della, a 27-year incumbent who had run unopposed for the past 20 years. Della’s father had been president of the Senate.
They faced the universal political need to organize supporters and to raise money, about $150,000. But Ferguson believed in the power of organizing people and money behind a cause that promoted the public’s self-interest in education. He believed his passion for school reform should appeal to teachers and parents.
Several Teach for America teachers immediately signed on as campaign volunteers. In fact, a separate leadership initiative of the national organization purposefully works to elect as many alumni as possible to public office, recognizing the influence they can have on school reform.
The population of Baltimore as a whole has dropped from 800,000 in 1982 to about 635,000 today. Unemployment in the worst neighborhoods is 33 percent. Entire communities are affected by lead paint and lead pipes that inhibit the educational abilities of many students. The district in which Ferguson won office is sharply delineated by several widely diverse neighborhoods. It encompasses the trendy, touristy Inner Harbor region, but also contains many of the city’s hardscrabble, deteriorating neighborhoods, littered with vacant storefronts and row houses, areas that most visibly reflect the city’s woes.
Ferguson believes more support for education is the best means of addressing those woes. “Given limited resources, it’s the area where we can get the biggest bang for our bucks,” he said. “If you improve education, you address a wide range of societal problems like youth crime, poverty, and health. Poor education lies at the root of many, many public sector issues.”
Ferguson doesn’t claim that there is a single answer for turning bad schools into good ones, but feels it’s important to try a broad range of innovative programs, such as charter schools, pay-forperformance, more engaging curriculum, innovative human capital strategies, better professional development, magnet schools, and the government Race to the Top program.
He also stresses that his goal is not creating equality, but leveling the playing field. He said, “Equity arguments in politics get polarizing, because people want to help the best of the best. America’s great because we help the best of the best, and we should do that. But it’s critical to ensure that everyone starts at the same baseline, to give all people the opportunity to be the best of the best.”
Ferguson’s campaign was a tremendous educational opportunity for Merrill. “I went into it with almost no knowledge of campaigning, but Bill put a lot of faith in me.”
Ferguson quickly found Merrill “phenomenal,” and gave him increasing responsibility. Beginning as an unpaid volunteer, in six weeks Merrill was a paid field director, second in command.
Merrill spent most of the day at campaign headquarters in front of a computer screen. He studied and analyzed results of past elections, organized volunteers to visit specific houses and ignore others, and managed a phone bank for volunteers. “I learned to love the strategy stuff,” he said.
Merrill drew up plans every day for homes the candidate should visit in the evenings, while Ferguson spent the daylight hours making fundraising telephone calls. Later in the day Merrill became Ferguson’s “body man,” walking with him to visit neighborhoods and speak with constituents. Merrill said, “Together we walked more than 600 miles and lost a combined 30 pounds! But the work paid off, and we went from a long-shot challenger to a legitimate contender.”
Ferguson knew that if only previous voters voted, his campaign would lose. So he mounted a strong effort to recruit new voters. He focused on distressed neighborhoods where the incumbent had never been seen. The campaign reached every neighborhood in the district, steadily winning over friends and volunteers with its person-to-person, education reform message. “I didn’t talk about jobs or the economy,” Ferguson said. “I talked solely about building a district with good schools.”
Eventually, they attracted about 200 regular volunteers and won the endorsement of the Baltimore Sun. With 130,000 residents in the district, the campaign calculated that it needed 5,099 votes to win. By election day, they had identified 3,818 confirmed supporters, and launched an all-out effort to convince an additional 2,000 likely supporters to get to the polls.
A low turnout early on election day was worrisome, indicating higher participation from older, regular voters who would support the incumbent. So the Ferguson campaign made an early afternoon decision to pull almost all their volunteers from the polling stations and send them into neighborhoods to knock on doors and urge supporters to vote.
Merrill almost panicked when his cell phone ran out of juice early in the evening, and he was unable to receive voting results from his precinct captains. But he didn’t need to worry. He returned to campaign headquarters as Ferguson was delivering his victory speech, having won convincingly—5,249 votes to 3,228. “It was a surreal moment I never thought would be possible,” Merrill said. “It still hasn’t sunk in.”
With no Republican candidate running in the traditionally Democratic district, Ferguson faced no opposition in the November primary election, and took his seat with 46 other state senators in Annapolis on January 12. He is serving on the State Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee—just where he wants to be. He has begun talking with Baltimore’s other five senators about improving the city’s schools. “I see my job as enabling teachers to do their job better by getting them the resources they need and compensation they deserve. I’ve got to find out where the interests of my fellow senators overlap with education reform and push that,” he said.
He’s a big believer in outcome measurements, and intends to gauge his own effectiveness by measuring the incidents of youth violence and change in population during his four-year term. “Reducing family flight and youth violence will set the stage for private-sector economic development,” he said. “It will be hard to do as a freshman senator, but it was also hard to beat a 27-year incumbent.”
Ferguson’s election took care of any questions Merrill might have had about his plans for the coming summer break. “I’ll do whatever Bill needs me to do,” he said. Ferguson said he will probably assign Merrill to some face-to-face door-knocking to stay in touch with constituents, as well as development of Internet communication tools.
With the campaign behind him, much of Merrill’s winter break this year was focused on BCC. He represented the school at an all-day Baltimore Education Coalition workshop aimed at blunting efforts by the state legislature to further cut education funding. And like he did last year, he spoke at BCC to junior and senior students, emphasizing the importance of higher education. He also spent time in the guidance office, helping students with their college applications.
His long-term dream is to become principal of Baltimore City College and work from the inside to help its needy students succeed. Last spring, he returned to Baltimore to attend three BCC alumni association meetings. “BCC is the defining factor in what I do at Davidson,” he said. Or maybe he will follow Bill Ferguson into Maryland politics and help on the state level. “My interest in politics and education now go hand in hand,” Merrill said. “I think I’ll take whatever option is quicker—high school administration or politics. Either way, Baltimore City College is my future.”
Merrill is one of 80 Chidsey Leadership Fellows at Davidson. Each semester, that program invites a proven leader to speak to the campus community. Merrill nominated Ferguson for the honor, and he spent a full day at his alma mater last November.
Bill Ferguson advised students to take risks, saying, “It’s easy to fall into a life plan that you think makes sense because it’s been set for you. But the world is a big place, and it’s critically important to step outside your comfort zone, especially when there’s such a lower risk in doing it in college.
“Even if you’re an investment banker, you can get involved with the community. Find out about local issues. Inform yourself. Don’t just take the path that other people ahead of you have taken.”
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