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West Baltimore's Renaissance Academy once again facing closure

West Baltimore high school facing closure for second year in a row.

City schools administrators are recommending closing Renaissance Academy, the troubled West Baltimore high school that saw three students killed last school year.

The proposal is part of a broader plan to close or merge several schools presented to the city school board Tuesday.

Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises recommended that Renaissance close after the current school year but said she would withdraw the proposal if the district and community partners could find a new location for the school.

The school is home to Seeds of Promise, a mentoring program that pairs black male mentors with about 140 students. The program was recently expanded using funds from a $350,000 grant awarded to the school by the U.S. Department of Education this year.

Board members are scheduled to vote on the recommendation next month.

Renaissance, housed on the third floor of the Booker T. Washington Middle School, is the only high school in the Druid Heights-Upton neighborhood.

A 17-year-old Renaissance student stabbed a classmate in a science classroom last November. The student later died.

School administrators said the stabbing and the shooting deaths of two other youths who attended the school have left Renaissance students traumatized.

Last year, then-schools CEO Gregory Thornton said that he would attempt to find a new space and develop a magnet-like program for the school. But Thornton was ousted, and students returned to the same building this fall.

Santelises said this year should be the school's last in its current location.

"That building, even before the tragedy, was a very challenging space," she said. "If you add the tragedy that occurred, it emphasizes the need for students and staff to be out of that space."

The University of Maryland School of Social Work, which has devoted staff and resources to Renaissance — and secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding — was among the partners to intervene last year to save the school from closing.

Santelises said she has been working with partners including the University of Maryland to find a new space for Renaissance, but some leads have fallen through.

Representatives with Promise Heights, an initiative at the School of Social Work that places social workers at Renaissance, said they strongly disagree with Santelises' recommendation and have urged her to change her mind.

"We are working with other partners to try to find an alternative location within the neighborhood," said Rachel Donegan, the associate director of Promise Heights. "We believe that the students are deeply connected to the adults in the program, especially the mentors, and we're very concerned about their social-emotional health and physical safety if they are separated from those adults."

The recommendation to close Renaissance is part of an annual review to determine which schools in the district will close, merge, or relocate. The decisions are guided by factors such as academic performance, enrollment and, in recent years, a 10-year-plan to consolidate, rebuild and renovate schools.

"What we're seeing in these recommendations to the community is that more of our young people will have access to high-quality learning spaces and have high-quality programming to match those spaces," Santelises said.

Santelises also recommends closing three other schools in 2017.

Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary School would close in the spring and move into a new building with Frederick Elementary School.

Northwestern High School, which currently shares space with Forest Park High School, would close at the end of the year and move into a renovated Forest Park building.

Baltimore I.T. Academy is being recommended for closure because it has struggled academically and seen declining enrollment.

Santelises is recommending that Grove Park Elementary School close in 2018 and move into Calvin Rodwell Elementary School, which will get a new building.

School officials are also recommending that Furley Elementary School move to the Thurgood Marshall building because the school has "severe structural challenges," Santelises said.

The school system estimates that the costs of repairing the school's roof and structural problems at $7.4 million. Furley students would stay in that building for at least three to five years.

Santelises said she would meet with Renaissance stakeholders this week to explore options.

A meeting at which students and parents will be provided more information about the closure and can give feedback to school officials is scheduled for Nov. 16.

The school board has scheduled a special session for the public on all the recommended closures at 6 p.m. on Nov. 22. A public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Nov. 29. Both meetings will take place at school district headquarters on North Avenue.

Much of the concern about Renaissance is where students in that neighborhood will go. Supporters say that they rely heavily on the school for basic needs, such as meals, and a safe place to go to escape persistent street violence.

If students had to move, Santelises said, the school system would assess each to see where they would be better served.

"I think that it is a tragedy to close a school that is supported by the community and that supports children with wrap-around services the way Renaissance has done in the last three years," Assistant Principal Greta Goodwin said.

She said it's easy to close schools that "don't appear to do as well on paper."

"The students would suffer if the school were to close," Goodwin said. "Many students come to school because at Renaissance they have support from the staff."

The school was granted a reprieve last November. Then it experienced a harrowing year of setbacks and progress.

Later in November, Donte Crawford stabbed classmate Ananias Jolley. Crawford pleaded not guilty to murder. He did not deny stabbing Jolley, but said it was self-defense. A jury found him not guilty in September.

In January, Darius Bardney, 16, was killed in what police described as an accidental shooting in an apartment building.

In February, former student Daniel Jackson,17, died after being shot several times on a street corner less than two miles from the school.

The school has won federal grants to help it recover from the trauma of the Freddie Gray riots and the extraordinary spate of violence.

"We're trying to lessen the trauma for an already vulnerable group of kids," Santelises said. "It's just not healthy to keep having kids in a space … that's a physical reminder of a tragedy."

She said she hopes Renaissance can remain open so that the students aren't separated.

"The community has made the case that it's best for them to be together," she said. "I'm not closing the door on it yet."

Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea K. McDaniels contributed to this article.

erica.green@baltsun.com

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