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Supporters say school recommended for closure is important hub for West Baltimore neighborhood

In the tall brick building on Gold Street where her daughter attends fifth grade, Kiquana Downer says she has found something like an extended family.

If she’s running low on food stamps, the single mother can pick up canned foods and fresh produce from the food pantry at William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School in West Baltimore. There’s a closet in the school library where she can find a free winter coat for Heaven, her 10-year-old daughter. She has taken a financial literacy course at the school, at which she learned the importance of building wealth — even if just by saving $5 a month. The school also offers after-school and mental health programs, among other resources.

But the future of the school is now in doubt. The Baltimore city school board is scheduled to vote Dec. 19 on whether to close seven city schools, Pinderhughes among them. Of the seven, only Pinderhughes operates as a community school. The designation, held by roughly 50 city schools, means it offers intensive social services to students and their families.

“The school is everything to us,” Downer, 35, said, “I don’t know of any other places that do the things the school do.”

As violence in Baltimore surges, advocates have pushed for more schools to take on the role.

Pinderhughes is located in Sandtown-Winchester, the long-struggling neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested in 2015. Gray’s injury in police custody and subsequent death sparked days of unrest.

Downer has lost two brothers to gun violence. On days when her spirits are low — when she feels “like the bottom of my shoe” — she goes to the school to play with the pre-kindergarten students.

The Baltimore Education Research Consortium says it has identified benefits to community schools. The consortium reported last year that students who attend long-operating community schools are less likely to be chronically absent, and parents are more likely to say that school staff cares for their children.

Towson University professor Jessica Shiller specializes in urban education. “Some of our greatest hope is in community schools,” she said. Closing them represents “the biggest contradiction in policymaking.”

Advocates say the community school model helps to elevate neighborhoods academically, socially and culturally. They say that’s vital in impoverished areas like Sandtown-Winchester.

“Imagine getting disconnected from all of those services,” said José Muñoz, director of the national Coalition for Community Schools.

School district officials say Pinderhughes’ small population — roughly 250 students — holds it back. In a district where funding is tied to student enrollment, officials say small schools lack the money needed to provide robust programming.

Under the plan being considered by the city school board, elementary school students at Pinderhughes would be rezoned to either Gilmor or Eutaw-Marshburn elementary schools, which are slightly larger than Pinderhughes but farther away. Eutaw-Marshburn is also a community school; Gilmor is not. Middle School students would select a middle school through the district’s school choice process.

District officials say there simply aren’t enough elementary-age students in the area to fill all three buildings.

City schools CEO Sonja Santelises has said the district wants to guarantee schools are able to offer essential programs and extracurriculars. Gilmor, for example, offers a Gifted and Advanced Learning program. Pinderhughes does not.

“Increasing enrollment at these schools would strengthen their ability to provide more educational programming,” officials wrote in a report on the closure recommendations.

At community forums on the proposed closures, some of the loudest opposition has come from parents and students at Pinderhughes. They say closing the school is just another example of the city delivering a blow to a neighborhood already in distress. The neighborhood has a median household income of $24,374. Unemployment is 20 percent.

Community schools coordinator Noreen Smith, who works with Pinderhughes through Elev8 Baltimore, said the school offers opportunities that aren’t available elsewhere in the neighborhood. Elev8 Baltimore works to get students ready for high school.

Smith said the district should have discussed solutions with residents before recommending the closure last month. “Anything that’ll impact this community, we need to be involved in the decision-making,” she said.

Santelises and school board members have visited the school in recent weeks. At a forum Tuesday, Pinderhughes supporters asked the board to put off the closure for 12 to 16 months to allow community members to come up with a solution together.

“We recognize that we have schools in very close proximity to each other,” said the Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, whose son is in third grade at Pinderhughes.

While the school lacks programs for gifted students, Smith said, it does have more than 60 community partners, including the University of Maryland School of Social Work, the Maryland Food Bank and the Police Department’s Western District. She asked what will happen to those long-cultivated relationships if the school is shuttered.

Elected officials have also voiced their support for Pinderhughes.

“William Pinderhughes has been a model for how the community and other stakeholders can partner to improve the climate and resources our schools have to offer,” City Councilman Leon Pinkett said. “It would be a slap in the face to the community to encourage those kinds of relationships and then close a school where it’s being modeled.”

The recommendation to close Pinderhughes is part of an annual review to determine whether to close, merge or relocate some city schools. The district considers academic performance, enrollment and, more recently, a $1 billion initiative to replace Baltimore’s aging school infrastructure and build up to 28 modern buildings.

In addition to 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 has announced plans to close 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 high school to close.

The Pinderhughes community has vowed not to go down without a fight. Hundreds have signed petitions that note that closing the school would leave Sandtown-Winchester without a middle school. They also point out that the school’s roof and HVAC system were replaced recently.

The Pinderhughes building was built in 1974, making it more than a decade younger than Gilmor’s building.

Witherspoon joined students and teachers last week to canvass the neighborhood to drum up support. About two dozen students marched through the neighborhood after school, during a time usually filled with dance, tutoring, basketball, and art or mentoring programs. Students who participate in after school programming are also fed supper at the school.

Witherspoon said he involved students so they “feel they have a vested interest in this fight.”

“We want them to know it's not just adults talking for them,” he said.

The children marched through the neighborhood chanting “Save our school!” while placing flyers into mailboxes encouraging residents to show up to the Tuesday meeting with the school board.

Witherspoon said some children in Sandtown are “accustomed to losing” — but this fight represents a teaching moment.

“When we win,” he said, “we’re going to empower our children to know they don’t just have to take things lying down.”

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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