A group tours Northwestern High School, one of several schools that has closed in the Park Heights area. This summer the group will be studying the impact of school closures. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
With classes now over, Baltimore's $1 billion plan to renovate and rebuild schools is entering its most active phase yet.
More than 3,400 students will be affected as 14 schools either close, move or merge in ways that will change classrooms and neighborhoods throughout the city.
But as officials look forward to a summer of consolidating programs, double-checking bus routes and moving furniture, communities are protesting — particularly in Northwest Baltimore, where Forest Park and Northwestern high schools are being merged.
Parents and others say the move is taking place with little notice, poor planning and minimal community input. They say they have been given little information about how the school system plans to merge educational programs, other than that the schools will be separated by a wall.
School officials have promised to hold community-building activities between students from the two schools this summer in an effort to reduce tension, and to continue meeting with neighbors. Residents of Fallstaff, where Northwestern is located, in particular have expressed concern about Forest Park students coming to the neighborhood. The two schools, both predominantly African-American, have a strong sports rivalry.
Plans call for Forest Park students to go to Northwestern in the fall while their school is being renovated. The next year, all the students will go to Forest Park, and Northwestern will close. The name of the merged school hasn't been decided.
City school officials acknowledged that news of the merger got to the Northwestern community late.
Mignon Anthony, executive director of the district's 21st Century Program to rebuild schools, offered several reasons Northwestern parents weren't notified earlier of the planned change. There was more focus on Forest Park because students there are the ones being displaced, she said. And Northwestern's future was uncertain because former schools CEO Gregory Thornton was working with the school's alumni board to find an alternative to closing the school.
"There were a lot of considerations before we settled on this," she told a group during a May meeting at Northwestern. "And to be honest, efforts to stop it have inhibited our ability to do better planning."
School officials did not present the option to the Northwestern community before making a decision, Anthony said. The decision was made in the winter, but Northwestern wasn't notified until March and April.
"They're tearing this community up by the roots," said Michael Rose, a parent of a recent Northwestern graduate and a rising ninth grader. "They're going to rush it, have a little get-together, and get away with it."
During a series of tense meetings through the end of the school year, parents and others pleaded with school officials to delay the merger until they were given more details about how it would be carried out.
Community leaders said they were concerned about nearly 500 more students coming into the neighborhood, given a history of friction between the two schools
"We're concerned as a community because whatever goes on behind those school doors spills over to the streets when they leave," said Sandra A. Johnson, president of the Fallstaff Community Association.
At one meeting held at Northwestern, commenters spoke of "those kids" and "our neighborhood."
Forest Park principal Monica Dailey took note.
"I don't know an us and them," she told the crowd. "When I wake up, I work for all of Baltimore City schools."
Parents of Northwestern students asked whether their children will have the same access to sports, special education, and other resources after the relocation.
Odessa Rose is worried that her younger son won't get the same educational services that allowed an autistic older son to graduate last month second in his class. She said a Northwestern teacher who was key to her son's success has already lost his job in the merger.
"The way they did this, it's made it so everybody is being pitted against each other," she said. "And we all just want to make sure our children are safe and get the education they deserve."
Del. Sandy Rosenberg, who represents the areas around Northwestern and attended community meetings about the merger, said he shared residents' concerns, but believed the renovated Forest Park building would be worth the temporary discomfort for students and the community.
"One moment that made it seem worthwhile was looking at the drawings for Forest Park," he said. "That was a reminder of why we're going through all of this."
Closing underused schools is the linchpin of the funding deal approved by the General Assembly in the spring of 2013 that will allow the city school system to overhaul its infrastructure. About $320 million in renovations are underway. Fort Worthington and Frederick elementary schools are currently being rebuilt and renovated. Nine more schools are slated for renovation by December. The first two renovated schools are due to be completed in the summer of 2017.
School officials acknowledge the state's largest capital improvement program has hit some bumps. Anthony, of the 21st Century Buildings Program, told community members that "there are many more puzzle pieces than anybody thought there would be."
Anthony said her office has hired a logistics manager and dedicated a staff member to take an inventory of valuable art and artifacts in schools slated to close.
"We've learned as the aspects of the jobs unfolded … that the transition efforts have to be just as important," she said. "We learned that we have a whole closure-with-dignity issue."
Northwestern, the first school built in Baltimore after the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling to desegregate schools, opened 50 years ago as a fully racially integrated school. Graduates include Sheila Dixon, the city's first female mayor, and Terrance West, a running back for the Ravens.
Northwestern's alumni association has been fighting plans to close the school for years. Just before Thornton resigned in May, he and members of the alumni advisory board visited Prince George's County to look at an international model for the school. Now, members of the board fears those efforts may have been futile.
"We're not sure what will happen in August because of the lack of transparency and lack of communication," said Mike Haynie, who chairs the advisory board. "But we are sure we're going to hold the school board accountable."
The board has been meeting with several political leaders and plans to ask Gov. Larry Hogan to stop the closure.
Meanwhile, community leaders in Northwest Baltimore have joined with The Teachers Democracy Project, a local advocacy group, to organize against future closures.
The group brought in activist Jitu Brown, who helped organize a well-publicized 34-day hunger strike against the closure of Dyett High School in Chicago. The protest resulted in the reopening the school.
Brown heads the Journey for Justice Alliance, a national group that is "demanding community-driven alternatives to the privatization of and dismantling of public schools systems."
On a recent tour of Northwestern and other schools in the Northwest Baltimore area he said he noticed many similarities between Baltimore and Chicago — particularly frustration with disinvestment in poor communities of color.
He said he hoped to help Baltimore community leaders understand "there is no protracted change or revolution without the guidance of the people impacted."
Anthony said the Northwestern-Forest Park merger has served as a reminder that the 21st Century Plan is more than a buildings campaign.
"We have to find a balance of how we take care of the community and getting the dream completed," she said. "It's a tough order, but we have to do it."