CEO must save Re­nais­sance Academy

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Eric T. Costello and Bron­wyn May­den Eric T. Costello (eric.costello@bal­ti­more rep­re­sents the 11th Dis­trict on the Bal­ti­more City Coun­cil. Bron­wyn May­den is as­sis­tant dean of the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land Bal­ti­more School of So­cial Work and ex­ecu

Once again, a CEO of Bal­ti­more City Schools is rec­om­mend­ing the clo­sure of Re­nais­sance Academy, and, once again, that rec­om­men­da­tion is be­ing met with stead­fast re­sis­tance by state and city of­fi­cials, faith lead­ers, an­chor in­sti­tu­tions, stu­dents and fam­i­lies, and com­mu­nity mem­bers. Clos­ing the school is short-sighted, poorly con­ceived, and ul­ti­mately un­sup­port­ive of stu­dents and fam­i­lies most in need of sup­port by city schools.

In fall 2015, CEO Gre­gory Thorn­ton rightly pulled the school off the list of rec­om­mended clo­sures when faced with push­back by stu­dents, alumni, fam­i­lies and part­ners who spoke to the positive re­la­tion­ships be­tween stu­dents and staff, high-level part­ner­ships, and sup­ports pro­vided by its com­mu­nity school lead agency, Prom­ise Heights, an ini­tia­tive led by the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land School of So­cial Work.

The 2015-2016 aca­demic year proved to be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for the stu­dents, fam­i­lies and staff of Re­nais­sance Academy, as they suf­fered through the loss of three stu­dents to homi­cide. Each time, Prom­ise Heights led cri­sis re­sponse for the school com­mu­nity, and Dou­glas Memo­rial Com­mu­nity Church (lo­cated across the street from Re­nais­sance) pro­vided a haven for com­mu­nity meet­ings, food dis­tri­bu­tion and men­tal health sup­ports for fam­i­lies. Staff con­tin­ued their train­ing in and use of restora­tive prac­tices, which give stu­dents the op­por­tu­nity to learn how to con­struc­tively ex­press them­selves. Con­se­quently, stu­dents would come to school and ask for “restora­tive cir­cles” through which staff would guide res­o­lu­tion of con­flicts that hap­pened out­side of school hours.

Seeds of Prom­ise male men­tors took on more male stu­dents for one-on-one and group men­tor­ing. The com­mu­nity school co­or­di­na­tor as­sisted stu­dents with is­sues around hous­ing, food in­se­cu­rity, col­lege/ ca­reer ap­pli­ca­tions, and health ser­vices re­fer­rals. All of this re­sulted in an 82 per­cent grad­u­a­tion rate at Re­nais­sance Academy, the high­est in school his­tory and higher than city schools’ av­er­age.

In its role as lead agency for the com­mu­nity school strat­egy at Re­nais­sance Academy, Prom­ise Heights has pro­vided am­ple fi­nan­cial and staff sup­port since the 2014-2015 school year. The or­ga­ni­za­tion se­cured over $1,225,000 from fed­eral, state and lo­cal fun­ders to cre­ate af­ter-school pro­gram­ming, sum­mer bridge pro­gram­ming, a full-time li­censed clin­i­cal so­cial worker po­si­tion to fa­cil­i­tate com­mu­nity school sup­ports, ad­di­tional men­tor­ing sup­ports, on-site coach­ing as­sis­tance for restora­tive prac­tices, ad­di­tional home vis­it­ing ca­pac­ity for stu­dents with low at­ten­dance, a door mon­i­tor po­si­tion, and a part­ner­ship with Safe Streets for school-based as­sis­tance in the 2017-2018 school year. The Bal­ti­more City Health Depart­ment is also in­vest­ing heav­ily in Re­nais­sance Academy through fed­eral grants fo­cus­ing on youth men­tal health and vi­o­lence pre­ven­tion. Should the school be closed, stu­dents would lose ac­cess to th­ese crit­i­cal pro­grams and sup­ports.

City schools of­fi­cials point out, ap­pro­pri­ately, that the cur­rent Re­nais­sance Academy pro­gram space is un­suit­able for stu­dents, as so manye­d­u­ca­tional spa­ces are in Bal­ti­more. The pro­gram sits on the third floor of the Booker T. Wash­ing­ton Mid­dle School for the Arts build­ing, and there are le­git­i­mate con­cerns about the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s abil­ity to mon­i­tor all the in­ter­nal stair­wells and ex­ter­nal doors. Part­ners have been ask­ing for over two years that new space be found that is more con­ducive to the aca­demic and trauma work our stu­dents must do each day. City schools gave part­ners five weeks to find new space for the school, space which we be­lieve ex­ists within city schools or through other part­ner­ships and which could be ar­ranged if the school were given more time.

City Schools CEO Sonja San­telises and the Bal­ti­more City school board should join the long list of part­ners who are work­ing to sup­port stu­dents in one of the need­i­est neigh­bor­hoods in our city. Th­ese stu­dents carry the bur­den of our city’s weak­nesses: trauma from com­mu­nity vi­o­lence, poverty, men­tal and be­hav­ioral health is­sues, and a fail­ing ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. Nu­mer­ous part­ners and stake­hold­ers are work­ing hard to pro­vide needed re­sources and sup­port to the school. We strongly urge Ms. San­telises to take more time to learn about all the great work be­ing done by part­ners and staff that pre­vi­ously re­sulted in a de­ci­sion to re­tain Re­nais­sance Academy and pre­serve the life­sav­ing re­la­tion­ships that its stu­dents have and des­per­ately need to re­al­ize their fu­tures. We hope she can be the CEO to fi­nally fully in­vest in the stu­dents of Re­nais­sance Academy.

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