The Baltimore school board voted Tuesday to grant a one-year contract renewal to the Banneker Blake Academy of Arts and Sciences, a public charter school that previously faced the threat of closure.
The 6-1 vote grants the North Baltimore school a conditional renewal, with benchmarks that will be set and reviewed by the district office. The decision was in line with city schools CEO Sonja Santelises’ recommendation, who cited the school’s need to improve its finances and special education services.
Students and advocates for the school, an all-boys program that enrolls roughly 220 students, crowded the school board meeting to argue for the school’s future. Many of the boys, who call themselves scholars, dressed in their standard school uniform: maroon sports coats, khaki pants and striped ties.
Proponents of the three-year-old school, including school director and former city councilman Carl Stokes, argued that Banneker Blake deserved a full, five-year contract after performing relatively well on state assessments and forging meaningful partnerships within the community.
It will be difficult to recruit more students, Stokes said, with the threat of closure hanging over the school community.
“We’re not shy about saying that we have an environment where young black males, most of whom are living in poverty in Baltimore, have a place where they feel they have a nurturing, safe and academically challenging environment,” Stokes said. “In a city where so many institutions are failing this population, not only should we stay open, but we should be celebrated for what we’re doing.”
But the district said the school struggles with financial management and with serving students with disabilities. They said an audit revealed insufficient cash reserves and raised questions about the school’s financial viability.
“Part of the driver behind this additional year is looking at areas where the school needs growth,” Santelises said. “The academic performance of the school has not been in question. But I will also say that part of the responsibility of a public educational institution is stewardship of funds and making sure all young people … even those with disabilities, are adequately taught and served.”
District officials said there were also concerns about the charter school operator’s ability to effectively manage the school. The district typically reviews charter schools every three to five years and judges them based on academic performance, climate and financial management.
Stokes argued that the school board has not made clear how much money a charter school should have in reserves. Plus, he said, school leaders don’t want to keep excess money in the bank. They want to funnel available funds into the classroom, “where it saves lives.”
The district also found that Banneker Blake is also not effective in supporting students with disabilities although more than a quarter of students there have special needs. One mother, Kelly Williams, testified before the board that the school “failed” her son, who has an Individualized Education Program.
But other parents spoke out in support of the school, including one mother who said her son had found a home and family there. City Councilman Robert Stokes, who is not related to the former councilman, said Banneker Blake deserve a five-year contract.
“A vote of confidence is a five-year renewal that says, we believe in you,” the councilman said.
Some school board members questioned how much progress could be made before next year’s school portfolio review.
“Will we see some stability in school leadership in just one year?” asked commissioner Ronald McFadden.
Commissioner Michelle Bondima pledged her support for the school, and emphasized the importance of educating Baltimore’s young men.
“I will help assist the school to help it get to where it needs to be,” she said.
The board also unanimously voted on a revised recommendation for West Baltimore’s William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School. The school was originally slated for closure this summer. District officials cited its close proximity to another neighborhood school, Gilmor Elementary, and the low number of school-age children in the area.
But community members rallied around Pinderhughes — which they said serves as an important hub in the Sandtown-Winchester community — and the board pulled back its recommendation.
The district decided that it will work with Pinderhughes and Gilmor families to devise a plan to create a single, strong school in the Sandtown-Winchester community. The district will close one of the schools in the summer of 2019.
Earlier this year, the board voted to shutter five schools: 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.