Plans being considered to move troubled West Baltimore high school to college campus

"Facilities send a message to students about their worth." Plans floated to move troubled W. Baltimore school.

Baltimore schools administrators are asking the Board of Education for more time to figure out how to keep Renaissance Academy open.

The board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to close the troubled high school. But schools CEO Sonja Santelises wants another month to explore the possibility of moving the nearly 300 students of the West Baltimore school about three miles northwest to the campus of Baltimore City Community College.

Santelises said deferring action until Feb. 28 would allow officials to further consider the move and provide time for families to offer their opinions about that possibility.

Santelises recommended last summer that Renaissance be closed, but said she would withdraw the proposal if the district and community found a new home.

A small group of supporters, educators and clergy suggested she consider moving the school to the community college in Northwest Baltimore.

"Our concern," said the Rev. S. Todd Yeary, pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church, next door to Renaissance, "was, 'How do we make sure the high school students don't find themselves displaced and spread out and disconnected?'"

Yeary, who chairs the community college's board of trustees, was among those who suggested the move. The group had convinced previous schools CEO Gregory Thornton to abandon his own plans to shutter the high school.

Nassim Ebrahimi, interim vice president of institutional advancement, marketing and research at BCCC, said the college was "actively engaged in conversations" with the Baltimore school system about establishing a permanent high school at the campus.

"Teams from BCCC and BCPSS are evaluating the facility and support needs for a potential Renaissance Academy partnership," Ebrahimi said in a statement. "It is the commitment of both organizations to insure that the educational experience of the students is one that will enhance student learning and outcomes."

Renaissance, housed on the third floor of Booker T. Washington Middle School, is the only high school in its struggling neighborhood.

Violence spilled into the school in November 2015 when a student stabbed a classmate, who later died. Two months later, a 16-year-old Renaissance student was killed in a shooting in an apartment building. The following month, a 17-year-old former student was shot and killed on a street corner less than two miles from the school.

Renaissance administrators, teachers and students said the deaths left them traumatized, but also drew them closer.

"We feel each other's pain," said senior Shamar Nicholson, 18. "It's a small school, a small family. Other schools don't have a family."

Plans to close Renaissance hit the students especially hard, said Hallie Atwater, a social worker at the school. She hopes it will find a new home at the community college.

"A lot of them personalize the closure of this school," Atwater said. "Facilities send a message to students about their worth. I am very excited to see how the physical space will impact students and staff alike."

The move would also provide students with ready role models and possible opportunities to take college courses, said Bronwyn Mayden, the head of Promise Heights.

Promise Heights, a program of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, assists students and families in the Upton and Druid Heights neighborhoods near Renaissance.

"The school really is a community," Mayden said. "That's why we cannot let it go.

She said relocating to a college campus would bring transformative change.

"The potential is really limitless," she said.

Santelises has described Renaissance's current school building as a "very challenging space."

She recommended closing the school as part of an annual review of which buildings to close, and which facilities should merge or relocate.

Such decisions are guided by academic performance, enrollment and a 10-year-plan to consolidate, rebuild and renovate schools.

The school board voted last month to close four schools with declining enrollment: Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary School, Grove Park Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore I.T. Academy and Northwestern High School.

The board was scheduled to vote then on Renaissance, but postponed action until today.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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