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City hopes to get more families to stay

City hopes to get more families to stay

City leaders and nonprofits are focusing in on families as they attempt to halt the city's population decline.

Between 2000 and 2010, the city's population decreased 4.6 percent to just under 621,000, the smallest decrease in decades. But among those of school age — between 5 and 17 — the population plunged nearly 23 percent, the sharpest drop for that age group of any of the state's jurisdictions.

Many didn't go far: Of the net 3,509 children up to age 17 who left the city between 2006 and 2010, about 75 percent landed in Baltimore or Anne Arundel counties, according to new analysis by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance.

The migration to county pastures in search of bigger homes and more reliable public schools has been happening for years, but city officials believe the time is ripe for a new campaign aimed at retaining families by promoting the city's schools and neighborhoods. It's part of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's signature effort to add 10,000 households to the city.

City officials cite the city's success at attracting young professionals as well as a growing number of public education options, thanks in part to the charter school movement.

"We needed other things to be in place," said Steven Gondol, executive director of the Live Baltimore nonprofit, which works as the city's residential marketing arm. "We could have targeted families 10 years ago, but what would we have them stay for? … I think we have much more to offer now."

As part of the new "Way to Stay" effort, Live Baltimore staff identified 20 "five-star" family-friendly neighborhoods with with good schools, affordable, larger homes, active parents' groups and pedestrian access to shops and restaurants. The list includes neighborhoods that work up the spine of the city, from Locust Point, to Midtown and Madison Park, through Barclay, Homeland and Lake Evesham.

The organization also added more school information on its website livebaltimore.com, explaining charter lotteries, mapping out the city's school zones and providing contact information for the bus operators for private schools. For the 17 highlighted public, zoned schools, parents can browse standardized test scores, attendance rates and student-teacher ratios.

Its staff also mailed letters to more than 3,000 families on charter school waiting lists, inviting them to a coffee next month to discuss other alternatives if they don't make it into their school of choice.

The initiative is a recognition of the way educational options shape a family's decision where to live, as well as a sign of renewed optimism about the ability to use the city's public schools as a draw in more than a handful of neighborhoods.

"It's clear we have some schools that are struggling, but we've witnessed other schools that are quietly thriving, and we need to tell that story better," said Rawlings-Blake, whose daughter is in sixth grade at The Mount Washington School, a public elementary and middle school. "I can't blame people for doing what they've seen everybody else do when they don't have better information."

The focus on schools and house size came from a survey of parents and focus groups. It's the first time Live Baltimore has highlighted some areas over others, but Gondol called it a necessary response as the city works to hold onto its residents.

"We can either address the loss of families head-on or we can continue to say, 'Well I hope they come to the decision on their own,'" Gondol said.

For community organizations focused on strengthening neighborhoods, the emphasis on schools is something of a shift.

"Fifteen years ago … I don't think people really even thought schools could be an asset in selling real estate," said Karen DeCamp, director of neighborhood programs for the Greater Homewood Community Corp., who has worked with Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle and Barclay schools as part of a broader push for neighborhood improvements. "City schools have long had a not very good reputation, and some of it deservedly, but our message to parents is to come out, come into the school if you've never been, take a fresh look and see what's happening now."

Officials said some of the focus on families is a response to a small groundswell of those who already decided to stay — whether stuck in their homes after the housing crash or committed to city life — and want more information, given the plethora of options.

Stacy Wells, 38, started looking at school options three years before her oldest — now 7 — entered kindergarten, attending open houses at charter schools across the city. She and her husband didn't want to move, and for financial reasons, private school was out.

"The blessing and curse about Baltimore City is school choice," she said. "It's nice that you have all these options … but it can be completely overwhelming, too."

Wells, who lives in Bolton Hill and works for the Federal Aviation Administration, ultimately settled on the zoned school closest to home — Mount Royal Elementary/Middle — where her husband went and where they were happy with the principal. Slowly, she said, more families from the neighborhood are joining them.

There are other, scattered signs that some families are putting down deeper roots.

In South Baltimore, the number of children enrolled in a public elementary school increased nearly 25 percent between 2012 and 2013 — the highest increase in the city, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. Across the city, the overall gain was less than 1 percent.

And it's not just the public schools. Some of the private schools are seeing increased demand from the city.

"It's the first time McDonogh is sending a bus into Federal Hill and Harbor East, that area," said Tim Fish, associate headmaster of the Owings Mills school. "The city is really thriving."

Kangaroo Coach, a bus company that works with private schools in North Baltimore and the county, started shuttles dedicated to serving the Inner Harbor about three years ago and expects more riders next fall, said Richard Nadolski, the firm's president.

Seema Iyer, associate director of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business, said once children are placed in a school, families are more likely to stay.

"Inertia is a good thing," she said. "The longer they stay, the more social networks they have, social, economically and emotionally. … Retention is really our best strategy to get people to want to live here for the long term."

Stephanie Bamberger, a Cummings & Co. real estate agent who works with families in Baltimore and the counties, said she still gets many couples intent on moving to the county in search of schools, lower taxes and bigger homes. But the conversation is starting to change, she said.

"Let's say 10 years ago, there really wasn't a question about where can you move within the city. It was really more, 'You've got to move to the county," she said.

Sandra Newman, a professor of policy studies at the Johns Hopkins University, said the city has neighborhoods that can compete with those in the county on metrics such housing cost and size, schools, crime and amenities, citing Baltimore Policy Project research in 2013 that compared spots in the two jurisdictions.

"There were not big differences for the features that we believe both conventionally and in the literature are believed to drive mobility decisions," said Newman, who directed the research. "So what is it that is driving it? It's some other unmeasured feature."

Michael Russell thought he was done with the city when he graduated from Carver Vocational-Technical High School, leaving for the military in 2008. Now he rents in Windsor Mill with his wife and two children — and a third on the way.

But the 27-year-old, who works in sales, recently found himself browsing homes in Howard Park and Forest Park, lured by new renovations of large, affordable homes and satisfied with the potential school options. He's still looking in Howard County and elsewhere in Baltimore County, but he registered on the Live Baltimore site, willing to give the city a chance.

"My first thought was, 'Never the city,'" he said. "And it only became a thought [to move back] once I saw things that I normally would get in the county."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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