Community members speak in defense of city schools recommended for closure

Standing outside the Baltimore city school district headquarters Tuesday, dozens of students and parents protested the recommended closure of William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School.

During a 2½-hour school board meeting immediately following the protest, hundreds more residents showed up to make their case against shutting down their school in West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, along with others throughout the city.

“It’s not just our school,” said Kiquana Downer, who has a child enrolled in fifth grade there. “It’s our safe haven.”

The Baltimore school system has recommended closing four more city schools, in addition to two others previously announced, because of declining enrollment and poor academic performance. The board will vote on the closures Dec. 19, following a series of public meetings in the affected neighborhoods. Community organizers have vowed to fight to keep their schools open.

In addition to William Pinderhughes, Coldstream Park Elementary/Middle School, Friendship Academy of Engineering and Technology, and Knowledge and Success Academy are all recommended for closure at the end of the academic year.

The school board previously announced the suggested closures next summer of Rognel Heights Elementary/Middle School and Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson Elementary/Middle School.

Board members are also considering a recommendation not to renew the charter of Independence School Local I, which would force the public charter high school to close at the end of the year.

"How did Baltimore go from 'The City That Reads' to the city that shuts down seven schools in one year?" said Eugia Johnson, 50, the grandparent of two William Pinderhughes students.

The recommendations for closure are part of an annual review of district schools that considers academic performance, building use and school safety, among other factors.

City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the district is focused on guaranteeing that schools are an appropriate size and have the capacity to offer the programs and extra-curriculars necessary.

“As a district, we are working to ensure that our schools are positioned in ways to best serve students and make sure all young people in Baltimore City get the high quality education they deserve,” Santelises said.

The recommended closures come in the midst of a $1 billion initiative to replace Baltimore’s aging school infrastructure and erect up to 28 new buildings.

The district operates using the “fair student funding” model, in which dollars follow the students to the schools they attend.

District officials say there are not enough students to fill both William Pinderhughes and nearby Gilmor Elementary. Should the board follow the recommendation, William Pinderhughes students would go to either Gilmor or Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary, which are 0.3 and 0.8 miles away, respectively. Middle-school students would choose which school they want to attend through the district’s choice process, but parents say their children would face much longer commutes through unsafe neighborhoods.

Community members said the board’s choice may leave Sandtown-Winchester without its own kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school. William Pinderhughes operates as a hub for the neighborhood, offering a food pantry, financial literacy workshops and other programs aimed at bettering residents’ quality of life.

"This isn't what should be happening a few years after an uprising centered on social and economic injustice," said the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon. His son, Cortly, is a third-grader at the school.

Witherspoon led parents in chants of, “Hands off our schools!” and “Schools, not jails!”

Dozens of parents, students and business owners have signed letters opposing the closure. The petitions note that William Pinderhughes’ roof and HVAC system were recently replaced.

State Sen. Barbara Robinson and Baltimore City Councilman Leon Pinkett both spoke on behalf of William Pinderhughes.

Dozens of supporters of Independence School Local I, the public charter high school, also packed the school board meeting to defend their education. They wore T-shirts reading, “Independence school matters,” and held up bright yellow signs bearing a similar sentiment.

The board is advised against renewing the Southwest Baltimore school’s charter because of its low graduation rate and college-readiness assessment scores.

Independence is currently serving about 150 students, the largest student body in its 14-year history. In 2016, the graduation rate was 66.7 percent — up from 56.7 percent in 2013, according to documents submitted to the board. The school graduated 23 of 27 seniors in the Class of 2017.

“The charter policy is to accept students who want to attend our school regardless of their attendance record at other schools, their transcript and/or grade point average,” school officials wrote in a report to the board. “Due to Independence’s nonselective criterion for admission, the school accepts students who are not always on track to graduate on time or are at risk.”

The school’s leadership disputed some of the district’s data and checkpoints that contributed to the recommendation for closure. Many students said that losing the charter school would be “devastating.” They said the small class sizes, experiential learning experiences and family-like environment have turned their lives around.

“The non-renewal of our school is a renewal of our lack of faith in this already flawed school system,” said junior Nathaniel Ervin.

The district said the other three schools recommended for closure — Knowledge and Success Academy, Friendship Academy of Engineering and Technology and Coldstream Park — have all struggled in recent years to perform well on state assessments and bolster enrollment.

Friendship Academy officials said Tuesday the school was on a positive trajectory and the numbers didn’t accurately represent the school’s value.

There will be another opportunity for public testimony on Dec. 12, and district officials will also be visiting each of the schools affected by the recommendations.

“You’ve been heard,” school board chairwoman Cheryl Casciani said before adjourning Tuesday.

trichman@baltsun.com

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