As someone who has worked in education reform — and lived it — for most of my life, I thought I had seen it all when it came to how broken the system is. Recent news out of Baltimore proved me wrong.

The news itself was shocking. The Maryland Department of Education has released the 2022 Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program scores, and the outcomes continue to be abysmal. In Baltimore, 93 percent of third through eighth grade students are off grade level in math. Last year, parents filed a lawsuit over failure to teach children, and news broke that 77 percent of students at one city high school tested at an elementary school reading level. The scale of failure for a system that’s spending $21,000 per student every year is hard to comprehend, but it’s one I understand all too clearly.

My life story is a testament to the ways that the system has let down generations of students and to the power of quality education to turn things around. I went from failing third grade — twice — to working at the White House, sitting on the organization’s board that granted me a scholarship, and working as a professional advocate for the type of programs that saved my life.

During Black History Month, I am reminded of why I founded Black Minds Matter in 2020. Amid a national conversation about discrimination and injustice, too many politicians and corporations were focused on meaningless gestures instead of the real changes that my community needs to overcome the achievement gap and escape the school-to-prison pipeline. The news and the response from Baltimore’s leaders remind me yet again of how far we have to go.

No matter what side of the aisle someone is on, everyone should be horrified at the reports that 93 percent of Baltimore’s predominantly Black students can’t do math on grade level, that 23 schools have zero students proficient in math, and that these types of failures have been compounding for generations. Instead, the response from city and state leaders was to dodge the question — and even blame the reporters for asking about it and complain about the lack of positive coverage for successes in city schools.

I am sure that every struggling school has some dedicated parents, staff and students trying their best amid unimaginable challenges. But as long as the system sends almost all of its students down a path of failure, there is little to celebrate. It’s no surprise that a growing number of Black families across the country have given up entirely, opting to educate their children at home or in private schools. School choice programs are urgently needed so that this lifeboat isn’t restricted only to wealthier families.

Baltimore students are in a crisis and need every option as soon as possible. The risks are well-documented. Nationwide, high school graduation rates for Black students still lag behind those of their White peers, and studies show that Black males without a high school diploma have a 70 percent chance of ending up in prison.

A few years of talking and planning might be nothing for adults in power, but those years can be life or death for students. Our children cannot afford to wait.

Education freedom saved my life and can make a difference for countless students who need a chance. For their sake, leaders can step up to the moment and give it to them.