Board votes to close five Baltimore schools, delays decision on William Pinderhughes

The Baltimore city school board voted Tuesday to close five schools at the end of the year, though district officials postponed a decision on a West Baltimore school that community activists have been fighting to save.

The board voted unanimously to shutter Coldstream Park Elementary/Middle School, Friendship Academy of Engineering and Technology, Rognel Heights Elementary/Middle School, Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson Elementary/Middle School and Knowledge and Success Academy, or KASA.

The board also rejected the district’s recommendation and decided to renew its contact with Independence School Local I, a public charter high school, for one year.

William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood received a temporary reprieve from the chopping block amid intense lobbying by the community.

In making the closing decisions, the school district cited low enrollment and poor academic performance.

Students and advocates of each school have asked the board to keep the doors open. Teachers from Friendship Academy said the school offers unique science, technology, education and mathematics skills. KASA parents said the school provided a strong community for their children.

Elected officials spoke out, too. City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the Northeast Baltimore community would be losing the “family” atmosphere provided at Coldstream Park.

The closures were recommended in November as 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 new buildings.

“This was not an easy process for anybody,” said school board chairwoman Cheryl Casciani.

A vote on William Pinderhughes has now been delayed until Jan. 23, and city schools CEO Sonja Santelises revised her recommendation.

“As an alternative to the closure recommendation, City Schools will work with the community to create a school for the Sandtown community,” she said.

Students and parents have spent weeks drumming up support for the school, which they say is a vital community resource.

“This is a triumphant victory,” said the Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, an activist whose son is in third grade at Pinderhughes. “And it’s a victory this community needed.”

Pinderhughes operates as a “community school” that provides intensive social services to the families it serves. The school operates a food pantry, a donated clothing closet and after-school programming. It also offers workshops for parents, including financial literacy classes that assist people in opening up savings accounts, among other skills.

Families questioned where they would get those services should the school close.

But the school is small — serving roughly 250 students — and is less than half a mile from another city school with low enrollment. The district will work with Pinderhughes and Gilmor Elementary families in devising a plan moving forward to create a “single, sustainable, high-quality program for the Sandtown community,” Santelises said.

“It was the powerful testimony of young people that most influenced my thinking,” Santelises said.

The board also delayed a vote on the previously recommended grade reconfiguration for Lois T. Murray Elementary/Middle School, which serves students with special needs in partnership with the Kennedy Krieger Institute, which provides supportive services to people with developmental disabilities. Santelises previously recommended cutting the middle school grades next year but is putting off a decision to gather more community input.

Advocates for the school said they were concerned with how the students would deal with the transition. The middle school students would have been sent to Claremont School, which is a high school that serves students up to 21 years old.

Michele Lambert said her eight-year-old son, who has autism, has thrived at the Northeast Baltimore school. She hopes to keep him there through eighth grade.

As a parent, I’ve seen the difference this school makes,” Lambert said. “When you have the best, why would you want to move away from that?”

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