The clock ticked to 2:40 p.m., and students and teachers trickled out of 2525 Kirk Ave., some wiping away tears. It was the end of the school year and, unless the state board of education steps in, the end of Baltimore’s Monarch Academy.
Rallies and appeals weren’t enough to stop the city school board from closing down the public charter school in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood that’s become an anchor in the community and its students’ lives.
Monarch is one of five city schools where the last day of school Thursday held particular weight. Instead of a “see you later,” it was goodbye.
Kiara Hargrove, Monarch’s principal, usually signs off the same way at the end of each school week. She knows many of Monarch’s students grapple with poverty, with homelessness, with surviving in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.
“Make sure I see you on Monday,” she always told kids as they boarded yellow school buses to leave.
“I’m not going to be able to say that anymore,” Hargrove said Thursday.
Nearly 2,000 children are affected by this latest round of school closures, which bring to 75 the total number of city schools shut down since 2004. About 1,000 kids were enrolled at Monarch alone, in kindergarten through eighth grade. Many gave emotional testimony to district leadership, packing into hours-long meetings and begging them not to shut down their beloved school and tear apart their Monarch family.
But the school board determined in January that the school wasn’t up to par, citing poor academic achievement and significant problems serving kids with disabilities. The board voted 6-3 to revoke its charter.
Also closing are Gilmor Elementary, Northwood Appold Community Academy, Roots and Branches, and Banneker Blake Academy.
Teachers were emotional as they drove up to Monarch, on Kirk Avenue, preparing to clean out their classrooms and say goodbye to their kids. But Ahmed Evans, the head of school, ended the staff’s morning meeting with the same gusto and positivity he always does.
“Let’s have our best day yet,” he told them.
It wasn’t a typical day at Monarch Academy. Because there were so many snow days this year, extra class days were tacked on to the end of the year. Attendance is usually low districtwide when that happens, and that was the case at Monarch, too.
In some classrooms, students watched movies or helped their teachers box up books. In others, 6-year-olds played with toys on colorful carpets. On the third floor, in the middle school wing, an eighth-grade math teacher sat on the floor with four of his students and offered advice to help them get through high school.
Don’t just leave your assignments lying around with no name on it, he told them. High school teachers will throw those worksheets away.
Joseph Hatchett II is a rising sophomore at Baltimore School for the Arts, but he still showed up for Monarch’s last day. He was one of the school’s “founding students” in 2013, and he wanted to return one more time to help some of his favorite teachers pack up their rooms.
“It’s hard to believe,” he said about the impending closure. “It was like a second home for so long. I guess it’s time to say goodbye, but I’ve been connected to it for so long. I don’t want to say goodbye.”
Some teachers and families held onto hope that the school would somehow remain open. The Children’s Guild, which operates Monarch, appealed the closure decision to the Maryland State Board of Education. Two weeks ago, an administrative law judge ruled in support of the Baltimore school board’s vote. While state education leaders ultimately have the final say, the judge’s recommendation was a tough blow.
After the state’s decision, both sides have the ability to appeal again.
“There’s still quite a lot of potential litigation hanging out there,” said Kimberly Neal, a lawyer representing the school. “I don’t know when this will finally end. For these particular families and these teachers, this is likely the end of the road. But we don’t know whether in the future Monarch will be able to open its doors again.”
Some teachers held off on applying for other jobs until after the judge issued her ruling. But by Thursday, most secured placements for next year, at schools spread across the city. As for the kids, many are still figuring out where they want to enroll next year. Because Monarch buses kids in from all corners of the city, many friend groups are splitting up.
Seventh-grade teacher Caroline Kilner left a colorful message for her students on the whiteboard, along with her personal email and phone number: “I will miss you!! Send me a message to tell me where you’re going next year!!”
Nevaeh Peterson, 12, is one of Kilner’s students. She’d been looking forward to graduating from Monarch, which she’s attended since elementary school.
“All my friends are here,” she said. “I’m going to miss them because we’re all going to different places next year.”
Some in the building appear not to have given up. Cafeteria workers wore bright orange “Save Monarch” T-shirts as they served kids their last school lunches.
Outside Monarch’s walls, community members also are mourning the loss. They say the school was helping to rejuvenate the neighborhood.
Mark Washington, director of the community association there, said he started seeing less illegal dumping and more people sprucing up their yards after Monarch took over the old Coca Cola bottling plant and transformed it into a welcoming school filled with colorful murals depicting the neighborhood’s past and present.
“That ripple effect was extremely beneficial. Now that’s gone,” he said. “What we thought was a progressive step for the community has been undone.”
To help address blight and housing instability among its students, The Children’s Guild bought vacant homes in the area with the intent to fix them up and sell them at below-market cost to teachers and kids’ families.
The first renovated house will be finished this month, and the Guild owns nine more homes that it still plans to rehabilitate and sell.
For Washington, the school’s closure makes him worry about the future of that revitalization work, though Guild officials say they remain committed to it. The Coca Cola Building, once occupied by a group working to eliminate vacant houses, will itself sit empty, at least for now.
Before the school year ended, Hargrove said, fifth-graders painted colorful rocks with butterflies and messages — “keep the neighborhood safe” — and left them around the community. They wanted to leave something positive behind.