City schools slated for closure push back, make their pleas

The first public hearing before the Baltimore City school board about the recommendations to close schools run by external operators spurred heated exchanges between operators and school officials, and left board members questioning the consistency of the district's decisions about which schools should be given second chances.

Earlier this month, Interim CEO Tisha Edwards introduced a sweeping plan that called for seven traditional and externally operated schools to close.


The contracted schools recommended for closure are: Baltimore Talent Development High School, Baltimore Community High School, Bluford Drew Jemison East and Bluford Drew Jemison West STEM academies, Baltimore Civitas Middle/High School, Baltimore Antioch Diploma Plus High School, and Baltimore Liberation Diploma Plus High School.

The traditional schools recommended for closure are: Grove Park Elementary/Middle School and Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts. Both would close in 2017, and the board will hold a public hearing on those recommendations -- as well as others that would expand and add schools in Cherry Hill and Canton -- on Dec. 2.

At the Nov. 12 meeting on the contracted schools, some operators pushed back on the district's recommendations and others pleaded to keep their schools open even if the district decided to sever ties with their organizations.

Baltimore Talent Development High School's recommendation brought the most contention, as the operators pointed out that the district gave the school a one-year extension last year in order to monitor the school's progress.

Bob Balfanz, a co-operator of the school that is run by Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools, said it was obvious the district was not really committed to the extension they granted in April.

"We're surprised to be here so soon," Balfanz said. "The message was clear: we had a year, and we've found out that wasn't the case. Whatever happened this year was going to be irrelevant."

He said that the school's commitment to graduating students was a "life and death issue," and compared Talent Development's data, such as chronic absenteeism, to other city high schools that are considered successful by the district.

The operators of Bluford Drew Jemison pleaded with the school board to keep the school open and find a new operator because they could not provide the support the school needed with its current resources.

"While our mission and intent were noble, our efforts may have been overzealous," said Anne Emery, chairwoman of the Bluford board.

Emery said the group may not be able to meet the challenges of providing a rigorous STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) program for students who come to them with such deficiencies, some of whom are performing at a first-grade level when they enter the school.

But she said the students at the school -- recognized for an exemplary climate and character-building of young, African-American boys in the city -- deserved to stay in their school, and have an operator that could build on the school's successes.

She noted that while the 34 percent pass rates on math assessments were low, but improving, Baltimore city police could vouch for the fact that they rarely ever pick up the students from her school.

"Our scholars are achieving," Emery said. "They may not reflect it in the rubric that you see."

The school board's student commissioner Cody Dorsey weighed in on the Bluford discussion, dismissing test scores -- Bluford's academic program was deemed ineffective due to persistently low performance-- as the most important gauge of student success.


He noted that the scores used to evaluate Bluford were the Maryland School Assessments, which will be phased out next year as the state transitions to a new curriculum.

"I couldn't care less about a test that's not going to be given next year anyway," Dorsey said. "A test does not define how determined you are to do well in school."

The operators of the Friendship Academy of Engineering faced a tough crowd.

The school, as well as its companion school the Friendship Academy of Science and Technology, are both recommended for three-year contract extensions. And the board posed some tough questions about why.

FAET was deemed effective in preparing students for college and careers -- which carried significant weight in determining whether the school should stay open -- though the school's principal acknowleged that 50 percent of graduates attend college and students' grade point averages are usually not high enough for admission.

The district began evaluating schools' college and career readiness data this year, which has also been a source of contention for board members for its perceived subjectivity. You can read more about that here.

"We can get them into [Baltimore City Community College] no problem," said Katrice Wiley, the school's principal. "We have to make sure those GPAs are higher because they get really discouraged with those."

Shanaysha Sauls, chair of the city school board, said she was surprised by how many categories were deemed "ineffective" on FAET's evaluation, though the school got an overall score of "developing" in academics.

David Stone, vice chair of the board, questioned why Friendship's Baltimore schools were not performing as well as the organization's schools in Washington, D.C.

He also pointed out that the school's overall evaluation indicated that students were leaving the school at a high rate, and parent satisfaction was low. He made the same observations of FAST.

Sauls concluded that while she saw a principal who was working really hard, "I do not see an effective operator."

Other board members said they also saw "red flags" at FAET.  Edwards pointed out that while the school is a STEM program, math and science scores were "abysmal."

"We get all the stories about how everybody loves the children, and we appreciate that," Edwards said. "But we need a whole bunch more."