Clos­ing schools can hit home

Some worry about how neigh­bor­hood, stu­dents are af­fected

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Talia Rich­man

North­west­ern High School ed­u­cated the youth of Bal­ti­more for decades, in­clud­ing fu­ture mayor Sheila Dixon and fu­ture Raven Ter­rance West. The sprawl­ing brick high school build­ing was one of the first built in Bal­ti­more af­ter the U.S. Supreme Court de­clared school seg­re­ga­tion un­con­sti­tu­tional. So to many in the Park Heights com­mu­nity, North­west­ern’s clos­ing in 2017 rep­re­sented the era­sure of tra­di­tion and iden­tity.

“You are dis­man­tling the neigh­bor­hoods when you dis­man­tle the schools,” said Michael John­son, a 1974 North­west­ern grad­u­ate.

The Bal­ti­more school board has been shut­ter­ing schools to deal with pop­u­la­tion loss and aca­demic fail­ure, and now it’s poised to vote in Jan­uary on the next round of clo­sures. Two tra­di­tional pub­lic schools and four pub­lic char­ters could be shut down by the end of the school year, bring­ing the to­tal num­ber of schools closed since 2004 to 75.

At risk are Gil­mor El­e­men­tary, Monarch Academy, North­wood Ap­pold Com­mu­nity Academy, Roots and Branches, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. El­e­men­tary/Mid­dle. The board has al­ready de­cided to close Ban­neker Blake Academy, though its lead­ers have pledged to ap­peal. Nearly 2,200

chil­dren would be af­fected by the clo­sures, nearly all of them African-Amer­i­can and most com­ing from poverty.

Schools of­ten are more than just a place to go to class — par­tic­u­larly in poor com­mu­ni­ties where they may be home to food pantries, meet­ing spa­ces and other much-needed re­sources. But dis­trict of­fi­cials say the clo­sures are nec­es­sary to bring the num­ber of schools in line with a dwin­dling pop­u­la­tion and en­sure stu­dents don’t lan­guish at schools that are fail­ing them.

“We know how hard school clo­sures are on com­mu­ni­ties. We don't take them lightly,” schools chief of staff Ali­son Perkins-Co­hen said. Clos­ings are needed, she said, “when we have neigh­bor­hoods where the pop­u­la­tion has got­ten so low and there’s just not enough stu­dents to sup­port vi­brant ed­u­ca­tional op­tions.”

More than two dozen schools have closed since 2013, the year Bal­ti­more signed a cel­e­brated agree­ment with the state and other part­ners de­vot­ing $1 bil­lion to­ward re­build­ing or ren­o­vat­ing up to 28 school build­ings. A lesser-known as­pect of the 21st Cen­tury School Build­ings Plan is the re­quire­ment that the dis­trict va­cate 26 school build­ings and turn them over to the city gov­ern­ment. So some schools have to close and merge with an­other be­fore chil­dren can move into one of the city’s promised, state-of-the-art build­ings.

Beyond that man­date, the dis­trict also has been clos­ing some peren­ni­ally poor­per­form­ing schools. The dis­trict’s CEO makes clo­sure rec­om­men­da­tions ev­ery year based on a re­view of schools, tak­ing into ac­count aca­demic achieve­ment, cli­mate and en­roll­ment. Pub­lic char­ter schools are eval­u­ated ev­ery few years, and can be closed if they’re fall­ing short.

The city school sys­tem was built to serve more than 100,000 kids, but en­roll­ment is down to roughly 80,000 this year and is ex­pected to con­tinue drop­ping.

De­clin­ing en­roll­ment cre­ates un­der­used school build­ings. Be­cause schools are funded based on en­roll­ment, some strug­gle to se­cure enough money to op­er­ate ef­fec­tively. A few of the schools shut down in re­cent years were less than a quar­ter full. From 2013 to 2018, the schools cho­sen for clo­sure had an av­er­age uti­liza­tion rate of roughly 55 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a Bal­ti­more Sun anal­y­sis.

Many of these school build­ings also were in poor con­di­tion. Dis­trict of­fi­cials say they can’t af­ford to keep so many ag­ing, halfempty schools open. In a dis­trict with a nearly $3 bil­lion main­te­nance back­log, it’s ex­pen­sive and of­ten in­ef­fi­cient to di­vert lim­ited re­sources to un­der­uti­lized build­ings.

Dis­trict of­fi­cials haven’t set a tar­get, Perkins-Co­hen said, for the num­ber of The map shows the lo­ca­tion of the 30 schools the Bal­ti­more school sys­tem has closed since 2013, as well as the six pro­posed for clos­ing at the end of the school year. (Four build­ings housed two schools.) Most are in the city’s poor­est neigh­bor­hoods, where schools of­ten are more than sim­ply a place to go to class. schools they want op­er­at­ing in Bal­ti­more.

The dis­trict’s uti­liza­tion rate was 83 per­cent as of Septem­ber 2017. Mean­while in Bal­ti­more County, where en­roll­ment is ris­ing, the school sys­tem is nearly at ca­pac­ity.

But to many af­fected by school clo­sures, it’s more than a num­bers game.

There were schools where gen­er­a­tions of fam­ily mem­bers wore the same col­ors. The build­ings were safe places in a city marred by gun vi­o­lence. The teach­ers, stu­dents and staff were like fam­ily.

There’s no Bal­ti­more-spe­cific re­search on what’s hap­pened to the chil­dren shuf­fled out of closed schools, so it’s hard to know how the ex­pe­ri­ence shaped the ed­u­ca­tion of thou­sands of kids. But re­search in other ci­ties has found trou­bling trends.

Stan­ford Univer­sity re­searchers looked at the im­pact of school clo­sures in 26 ci­ties, and found that less than half of stu­dents dis­placed by a clo­sure ended up in bet­ter schools. An­other study — look­ing at the ef­fects of Chicago’s 50 school clo­sures in 2013 — found stu­dents who at­tended a school sched­uled for clo­sure had low­erthan-ex­pected test scores the year of the an­nounce­ment, which re­searchers par­tially at­trib­uted to how dis­rup­tive the year was for chil­dren.

Nikkia Rowe spent nearly two decades as a Bal­ti­more ed­u­ca­tor, work­ing in four schools that have closed. She wants a mora­to­rium on clo­sures un­til their im­pact here is stud­ied. She wants to know how it af­fects a child’s like­li­hood to grad­u­ate. She wants to know whether a neigh­bor­hood that loses a school sees more vi­o­lence.

“What is hap­pen­ing to the kids?” Rowe said.

Michelle Renée Val­ladares, as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor of the Colorado-based Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy Cen­ter, said clo­sures leave chil­dren feel­ing they can’t be taught and blam­ing them­selves for a school’s fail­ure.

“This is the mes­sage ci­ties are send­ing to kids: You’re not good enough for us,” she said. “No mat­ter how pol­i­cy­mak­ers and lead­ers try to couch it, that’s how kids in­ter­pret it.”

Stud­ies have de­ter­mined that school sys­tems dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­get schools with large shares of mi­nor­ity stu­dents for clo­sure. Since 2013, the av­er­age stu­dent body at schools closed in Bal­ti­more was 95 per­cent black. The dis­trict as a whole is about 80 per­cent African-Amer­i­can.

In 2015, the city school sys­tem closed Langston Hughes El­e­men­tary/Mid­dle in North­west Bal­ti­more. It is now con­sid­er­ing clos­ing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., less than 2 miles away. Both are within City Coun­cil­woman Sharon Green Mid­dle­ton’s dis­trict.

She laments the sym­bol­ism of clos­ing a school named for a leg­endary AfricanAmer­i­can poet and then an­other named for a civil rights icon.

“It’s like you’re re­mov­ing history,” she said.

Perkins-Co­hen ac­knowl­edged the im­pact poli­cies like redlin­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tion have had on Bal­ti­more’s neigh­bor­hoods and schools.

“Be­cause of that history, there are neigh­bor­hoods that have been dis­ad­van­taged and not af­forded a fair op­por­tu­nity for a long time,” she said. “We cer­tainly don't want to ex­ac­er­bate that.

“But at the same time, leav­ing schools that don't have enough re­sources to be suc­cess­ful is not serv­ing them well ei­ther.”

Some of the schools on this year’s clo­sure list are among the worst-ranked schools in the state.

Per­haps the most fre­quent con­cern Mid­dle­ton has heard from fam­i­lies is the longer walks their chil­dren face. Bar­ring safety con­cerns or other spe­cific is­sues, the dis­trict pro­vides buses only for el­e­men­tary stu­dents who live more than a mile from their school.

Af­ter the clo­sure of Langston Hughes, stu­dents were re­zoned to ei­ther Ar­ling­ton El­e­men­tary/Mid­dle or Pim­lico El­e­men­tary/Mid­dle, both part of the 21st Cen­tury Schools pro­gram.

Nathaniel White, 42, lived across the street from Langston Hughes, where his son at­tended through first grade. The boy now walks about 25 min­utes to the new Pim­lico build­ing, along with his two younger sib­lings. It’s im­pos­si­ble for the chil­dren to avoid boarded-up houses and drug deal­ers on cor­ners, White says.

“If I'm at work, he’s walk­ing them home by him­self,” said White, who him­self went to Langston Hughes and later North­west­ern. “You’re so busy wor­ry­ing, ‘Did he get hit by a car? Are they caught in some cross­fire?’ ”

Many com­mu­ni­ties have put up tough fights af­ter learn­ing their schools were slated for clo­sure.

Monarch Academy sup­port­ers have held ral­lies out­side dis­trict head­quar­ters, car­ry­ing orange posters read­ing #SaveMonarch. The pub­lic char­ter school, filled with bright mu­rals, hopes to up­lift the Cold­streamHomestead-Mon­te­bello neigh­bor­hood. It serves about 1,000 stu­dents. More than 970 are black. The dis­trict is rec­om­mend­ing Monarch close be­cause of low test scores and prob­lems with how the school teaches stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties.

Sup­port­ers of Monarch and other schools sched­uled for clos­ing packed a re­cent school board meet­ing. Chil­dren and teach­ers begged the board not to shut down their beloved schools. One girl said the board would be “heart­less” to close a school that pro­vides Bal­ti­more chil­dren so­lace.

A Monarch fifth-grader wrote her speech on a torn-out piece of lined pa­per she kept folded in the pocket of her khakis.

“Please do not close my school down,” 10-year-old Tay­onna Wig­gins said. “You don’t know what it means to me that you will shut down my life.”

The school board has been swayed by ac­tivism be­fore.

Wil­liam Pin­der­hughes El­e­men­tary/Mid­dle was rec­om­mended for clo­sure last school year. Dis­trict of­fi­cials said there weren’t enough stu­dents in the Sand­townWinch­ester neigh­bor­hood to fill both Pin­der­hughes and nearby Gil­mor.

Sup­port­ers ral­lied around Pin­der­hughes, and the board granted a one-year re­prieve to give the West Bal­ti­more com­mu­nity time to draft a plan to cre­ate one strong school, to­gether. A year of com­mu­nity meet­ings yielded a plan: Gil­mor would close, and its stu­dents would merge into Pin­der­hughes in­stead.

The Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Wither­spoon, whose son at­tends Pin­der­hughes, said he hopes the process will be a tem­plate for the dis­trict. School sys­tem of­fi­cials agree.

“Be­cause of the pop­u­la­tion loss we’ve had, we’re go­ing to have to close schools,” Wither­spoon said. “But if you bring the com­mu­nity to the ta­ble and have real dialogue, and if the com­mu­nity’s voice is re­spected on the front end as op­posed to back end, you can come away with a real com­pro­mise.”

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