Baltimore school officials will begin meeting with four school communities Wednesday, after the district made recommendations that will displace dozens of staff and hundreds of students at one failing high school in Cherry Hill and three elementary/middle schools.
It will be one of many community and public meetings taking place at Southside Academy High School, Federal Hill Preparatory, Moravia Park Elementary/Middle, and Steuart Hill Academy. Southside, a failing high school, will close on June 30; the three elementary/middle schools will drop their struggling middle school programs to free up seats and strengthen their elementary school programs.
This year's proposals were made as part of schools CEO Andres Alonso's annual "Expanding Great Options" program, which traditionally has targeted the worst schools in the district for closures and overhauls.
While the first two years of Alonso's tenure saw rolling closures — 13 schools have been closed, and several others merged or relocated — as the schools chief sought to hold schools accountable for the long-standing failure of their students, the last two years have been markedly different.
Last year, Alonso recommended closing one school, the Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship, which will close this year, while others underwent internal overhauls like replacing staff and implementing new programs and curriculum.
The schools chief said Tuesday night that the school closure list was pared down this year — a year that some schools noted crippling declines in achievement — because the district is bracing for a plan that will see dozens of schools closing as the city begins shuttering underused and grossly dilapidated school buildings.
He said the process promises to be as painful as it is productive.
"We were careful because we don't want to make decisions today that are going to bump up against decisions made later," he said. "It's going to be radical next year."
Though not as radical as prior plans, city school members still raised concerns Tuesday.
The students at all affected schools will have to find new schools, some having to participate in a school-choice process that the rest of the city's middle and high school students participated in last fall. And the application deadline for the city's charter schools is Friday.
"I'm concerned that our students won't have access to high-quality choices," said city school board member Tina Hike-Hubbard. "I think there are some parents who would argue that their choices won't be honored given how late the process is."
Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system, said that the district took the displacement of students and teachers into consideration as the district researched the variables that contributed to their decisions.
For example, Southside Academy, a school of 274 students, shares a building with the well-performing New Era Academy High School.
Federal Hill students would be given preference for neighboring Thomas Johnson or Francis Scott Key elementary/middle schools; and Moravia Park students could feed into Northeast Middle School. Steuart Hill students, who have scarce school options in their neighborhoods, would be most limited in the late start in the school-choice process.
The staff affected in those schools will also have to find other placements in the district, which has continuously carried a surplus of teachers — educators without permanent positions — for the past five years.
Edwards said that teachers displaced by the plan will be encouraged to apply to other programs, particularly middle school teachers who are needed throughout the district.
"We took all of that into consideration," Edwards said.
The four schools had academic challenges, but variables such as location and enrollment trends also factored into the recommendations.
"Our lens for this work is not just about test scores," she said. "It's not just about closing failing schools, but strengthening our portfolio."
Southside Academy, which opened a little more than a decade ago, has struggled with academics. Just 15 percent of its first-time test takers passed the High School Assessments and only 14 percent total passed overall in the 2011 school year, down from 30 percent in 2008.
"This is a school that's really been struggling and moving in the negative for a long period of time," Edwards said during a presentation.
The school's enrollment has also declined in the last four years, which Edwards said demonstrated that students "were not seeing this as a viable high school option."
Steuart Hill Academy has also struggled academically, experiencing drops ranging from 19 percent to 28 percent among its elementary and middle school students over the last four years on the Maryland School Assessments.
Closing Steuart Hill was not an option, Edwards said, because the community has limited school choices. "We have to strengthen programs and grow seats," she said of the school, which expects a large enrollment jump in the next five years.
At Federal Hill Prep, Edwards said, "there was a community concern that it's a building that doesn't support middle school programming."
That school has also experienced drops on the MSAs across all grade levels in the last four years. The largest drop at that school was in middle school math, which plummeted from 86.5 proficiency rates in 2008 to 46 percent in 2011.
A booming international and refugee population has placed Moravia Park in a position to expand its elementary program and bolster enrollment at Northeast Middle School, which created an International Student Education Center to target the population's needs.
"This is a school that's actually busting at the seams," Edwards said of Moravia Park, which has nearly 1,000 students this year. "This is an effort to be more responsive to the international needs there."
Several meetings of school communities and the public will take place at the affected schools throughout the end of the month and early March. Public meetings on the recommendations will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. March 6 at city school headquarters, 200 E. North Ave.; and from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. March 10.
The board is scheduled to vote on the recommendations March 27.