In response to a system that many believed had long failed young black boys, a school began to take shape seven years ago in a small East Baltimore neighborhood.
The Bluford Drew Jemison Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Academy would educate "scholars" who would wear uniforms and neckties. The school would have 12-hour days and extended school years to cut the time students spent on the streets as they came to embody the "BDJ Way."
But several years later, students lacked textbooks, computers and art supplies, and instructors had to teach geography with a hand-drawn map of the U.S.
Amid years of financial mismanagement and lackluster achievement, Baltimore school officials are now proposing to close the politically connected school, whose co-founders include Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes and whose board of directors includes City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young.
Bluford is one of several charter and independently run schools with high-profile operators that the city school board could vote Tuesday to close at the end of the 2014 school year.
"It's a mess," said Stokes, who co-founded the school in 2006 but said he has been separated from day-to-day operations for about three years. "The operators who have the school now have done a number of bad things in terms of changing the vision."
City schools CEO Andrés Alonso recommended last month closing four independently operated schools and bringing two other schools under district control, after a months-long review of their progress concluded they had failed to live up to their promise.
While Alonso has championed the proliferation of charter schools, this would mark the first time he has sought to close any. In 2010, the schools chief revoked one charter license, but allowed the school to stay open.
Among the other schools slated for closure are Baltimore Talent Development High School and Baltimore Civitas Middle/High School — the brainchildren of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools, which for decades has been a leading institution in education research and reform in Baltimore and other urban cities.
In addition, the students of Baltimore Freedom Academy High School — who have marched the streets of Baltimore for slain teen Trayvon Martin and the halls of Annapolis for education funding, and who were also featured on the pages of People magazine to illustrate the abysmal conditions of schools across the country — could soon find themselves displaced.
In a contentious public forum last month, the school operators argued that their students might not fare any better in the public school system, which has its own shortcomings, such as limited resources and stagnant academics.
They said that in some cases, their student achievement data exceeded the district's average and doesn't accurately reflect the difference their unique programming has made in students' lives.
Bluford's board chairwoman asked for patience in turning around the city's most at-risk population, citing barriers to urban education reform.
"You can't educate poor, urban males and do it in the same way, with the same timeline — it takes more energy to acculturate them into a different lifestyle," said Anne Emery, a retired city educator.
"We get children who are foster children or extremely poor, but they look like everybody else because we put them in their uniform, they start to believe that, and achievement follows."
Operators also decried the review process — Baltimore Freedom Academy officials believed theirs was so skewed, they requested it be redone — and contend that some of the standards by which they were measured were inconsistent and unfair.
But Alonso has countered that "charters are supposed to be about innovation and performance. ... They should be about higher expectations. Not about excuses."
"I am offended by how the legacy of low expectations is still with us," Alonso said after the forum. "No one should get away with using the kids as the excuse for mediocrity or arguing that being average in Baltimore is OK. Or that somehow it's the system's fault."
City school officials acknowledged that the operators have long been well regarded in the community and said the recommendations were not intended to disparage the operators.
"School reform is really hard work, and these recommendations shouldn't be viewed as an individual rejection of an individual operator," said Alison Perkins-Cohen, who oversees the district's office of new initiatives. "We don't want to discourage partners that are taking on some really hard jobs, but we also don't want to continue having schools that aren't serving kids well."
A charter advisory board of representatives from the district's central office, parent and community boards, City Hall, unions and other organizations reviewed applications from 25 schools to renew their contracts.
In addition to reviewing academic data from 2008 to 2012, district officials looked at the charter schools' financial audits, surveys of the school community, and two days of observations that included interviews with staff, students and parents.
In the case of Bluford, 61 percent of students passed the state reading tests and 46 percent passed math in the 2011-2012 school year — a performance that lagged behind the city's public schools.
But district officials said the school's finances raised the biggest red flag. In 2010, auditors concluded that there was "substantial doubt" that the charter school was a viable business.
"If you look nationally, the reason that charter schools fail is because of financial concerns," said Perkins-Cohen. "There's a big difference between knowing how to educate and knowing how to run a business. And charter schools are a business."
Stokes — who earned $79,997 as Bluford's chief operating officer in fiscal year 2009 — said the school fell victim to financial mismanagement.
He also served on the panel that made the recent contract renewal recommendations, though district officials said he recused himself from any discussions involving Bluford to avoid a conflict of interest.
Stokes said the school couldn't order textbooks after it lost its credit line, and that the organization began shifting resources from its east campus to its west campus, a high school it opened in the former Walbrook High School building three years ago.
He also said the school owed $75,000 between 2009 and 2010 in unpaid utility bills and had to rely on loans from the school system to pay them.
Stokes said that the school — which paid its executive director $120,000 and its business manager $80,000 in fiscal year 2011, according to the latest available data — had abandoned many of its trademarks, such as 12-hour days, Saturday school, summer programs and feeding students three meals a day.
"They're a great group of kids," Stokes said. "It just bothers us greatly, those of us who originally founded the school. Those who we handed it over to screwed it up."
Council President Young declined to comment.
Bluford operators said some of the school's financial trouble stems from a theft by a former employee.
Court documents show that a 32-year-old Baltimore woman was convicted in a 2010 felony theft and ordered to repay the school $63,793. Tanea Williamson, of the 1500 block of Shadyside Road, was given a three-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty. A city judge ordered her to begin making $300 payments to the school beginning in May 2010.
"We had a hard time catching up," Emery, Bluford's board chairwoman, said. "But we're getting back on track."
The school has hired an independent accounting firm to manage its finances, she said, and slowly programs are starting to come back. She said academics have begun to improve under the school's new principal.
But, Emery added, other numbers should count just as much.
The school boasts a 97 percent attendance rate, and only one student has been picked up by police since its inception, she said. Nine students made up the largest group of Baltimore students ever to be selected for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth program, and the school's robotics team took first place in a national robotics competition.
"Those are things that people have to look at: How did we do that?" Emery said, adding that she is prepared to fight for the school. "The report that was put out there, it just didn't reflect the school I've grown to know and love."
Hopkins' Talent Development High School uses a nationally acclaimed model designed to ensure that the most at-risk students at neighborhood high schools graduate.
"We feel like we've stayed true to that mission," said Robert Balfanz, the school's operator and a research scientist at Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools. "That was our goal, and that's the outcome that matters the most. Because that's the difference between a shot at life or not in Baltimore City."
Balfanz said the school has experienced leadership instability in the past three years and acknowledged unacceptably low test scores — 25 percent and 16 percent of students passed the state English and math assessments, respectively, in the 2010-2011 school year.
But Balfanz said the scores do not negate the fact that Talent Development's four- and five-year graduation rates rank among the highest for neighborhood high schools without selective admissions in Baltimore City. Those rates mirror the statewide average for students of the same demographic, and both rates exceed the district's overall averages.
Educators sent by the system to observe the school's classrooms noted that "there is not yet a learning-focused classroom culture" and that teachers had not "established rigorous goals for student learning."
Balfanz said the observation was ill-timed: It was scheduled the week after Memorial Day, when seniors were gone, students were reviewing content for final exams and the principal was out of the building.
"That's correctable," he said of the observations. "That's not absolute."
Baltimore Civitas, the other Hopkins-run institution, is a combined middle-high school with a mission to "to graduate students ready for college and careers in public service."
But in the school system's report, educators in interviews with district officials described it as a place where "children prevail over adults," and the school's only plan of action is "to keep students in the classroom." Parent focus groups called the school's classroom atmosphere "pandemonium."
Balfanz said that student poverty, coupled with the recession and limited resources the school received from the system, took more of a toll on Civitas than anticipated. He also noted that the school's leadership team had turned over in recent years, making it more difficult to execute a vision.
"It was an attempt to try a new model, and we found that under the current conditions, it wasn't really sustainable," he said. "You learn from that, too."
The operators of Baltimore Freedom Academy said they took in teachers with unsatisfactory job performances and low-performing middle-school students at the school system's request. And they pointed to several ways they said the report on their school was unfair.
For example, district observers said the school did not stay true to its social justice theme, though the school is known nationally for its activism. Observers also justified unfavorable ratings in part by noting that the school did not post Maryland standards in classrooms, which isn't a requirement of any school.
The school district had to retract a conclusion that the school had not fulfilled 1,000 hours of services for special education students — after the report already had been made public.
Khalilah Harris, the school's executive director, said the staff members "reflect until we're blue in the face" about how to raise their achievement levels.
At the time of its review, the school noted that 15 percent of its students passed the English high school assessment and 11 percent passed math in the 2010-2011 school year. The same year, 46 percent of the middle school students they took in passed reading tests, and 10 percent passed math.
"We know the games we could play to make our numbers look good, but we will not conform to shenanigans," Harris said.
"We know we have kids who are never going to pass those tests. But if you ask them the difference between right and wrong, they can tell you with certainty," she added. "We're committed to creating 21st-century thinkers who can advocate for themselves and others. Where does that show up?"
twitter.com/lukebroadwaterCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun