In a public forum packed with emotion as well as people, the Baltimore school board heard Wednesday from independently operated schools fighting for contract extensions as some presented narratives describing their strengths and weaknesses.
Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso recommended last month three- and five-year contract extensions for the majority of the 25 schools, primarily charters, that underwent a months-long process that scrutinized various data and overall governance. But he also suggested the district sever ties with operators at six schools, four of which would close.
"There's no such thing as a perfect rubric when you have 25 schools that are so different," Alonso said.
Of the schools scheduled to close if their contract recommendations are upheld, Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy-East, an all-male middle school the district said has a history of poor achievement and overall management, made the strongest showing at the board meeting. More than 50 representatives were decked out in blue and gold, holding signs pleading with the board not to give up on the school.
The school's principal, Kelvin Bridgers, said that while "the data speaks for itself," the school has met academic targets recently, and reduced suspensions and expulsions. "Obviously, there's been some challenges," he said. "But I ask that you consider what the school could do."
The Baltimore Freedom Academy, a combined middle-high school with a social justice theme, would also close if the recommendations are upheld. The school's representatives documented a list of occurrences in the process that it felt unfairly characterized its performance. Among them, operators said, was a district evaluator calling the school "hopeless."
Baltimore Civitas Middle/High School and the Baltimore Talent Development High School — both of which are run by the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University — also didn't receive contract-renewal recommendations.
For schools that would not close as a result of the contract revocations — Collington Square Elementary/Middle School and Montebello Elementary/Middle School — Alonso recommended they revert to district-run schools.
The Baltimore Curriculum Project, a long-standing partner that operates several schools in the city, asked board members to reconsider taking back Collington Square and to give its new principal a chance.
The organization has two other schools — Hampstead Hill Academy and City Springs Elementary/Middle — that are recommended for contract extensions, which they said reflected, in part, stable leadership.
"It's disheartens me," Melvin Holmes, Collington Square's new principal, told board members. "I feel like I'll be hanging out there on an island."
Montebello is run by national for-profit Edison Learning. The school had 80 parents, teachers and students turn out to express their desire to stay under Edison's leadership, which they said brings in resources the system can't provide.
City school commissioner Bob Heck said that while he sympathized with school representatives, he takes seriously the board's responsibility to educate students. "The process is not taken lightly," he said. "It is very serious. But we don't get to this point of nonrenewal from things that just come out of the air."
Schools recommended for three-year contract extensions also asked the board to consider longer ones.
Cecil Gray, chair of Northwood Appold Community Academy, a public charter school, told board members the students had "earned a five-year contract" and were outperforming other schools slated to receive five-year extensions. He said many of the "measures don't match" in the schools' overall evaluations.
Board members asked Gray how the recommendation affected his students, and he replied that it would undermine the school's teaching that students are rewarded for hard work.
"It will damage their understanding of justice … fairness," he said. "They won't trust us."
The operator of the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, recommended for a three-year extension, also said a five-year extension could bring in more resources for the school.
For Kia Harper, the three-year renewal recommendation for ConneXions Community Leadership Academy Middle/High afforded the school the opportunity to "take a look in the mirror." The school was so encouraged that it asked to change its name and amend its vision.
Harper said the extension meant that the school had the opportunity to "not only be, but be better."