Baltimore school board votes to close five schools

The Baltimore school board voted Tuesday to close five schools, adding to the dozens that have been shuttered in the district over the past decade.

The district will close Gilmor Elementary, Monarch Academy, Northwood Appold Community Academy, and Roots and Branches at the end of this school year, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary/Middle at the end of the following year. The board previously voted to close Banneker Blake Academy at the end of this school year.

The vote on the latest round of closures comes as the district grapples with how to handle a shrinking student population and many low-performing schools. Officials consider a school’s climate, test scores, enrollment and building condition in making their recommendations.

Students, teachers and other affected community members have pushed back in some cases, saying their school’s value can’t always be distilled this way. They argue their schools are vital resources in underserved neighborhoods, and closing them would be traumatic for the children who view them as a second home.

Roughly 2,200 children will be affected by the latest round of closures, nearly all of them African-American and most coming from poverty.

Baltimore’s closed schools

The map shows the location of the 36 schools the Baltimore school system has voted to close since 2013. (Four buildings housed two schools.) Most are in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

School supporters have put up tough fights in the months leading up to this final vote. They’ve held rallies outside district headquarters and presented hours of emotional testimony. Monarch students last week delivered more than 1,000 letters and petitions to City Hall, begging for Mayor Catherine Pugh to help them keep their beloved school open.

The final vote is up to the school board, the members of which Pugh appoints.

District officials acknowledge how difficult these closures are for communities but see them as necessary. The city school system was built to serve more than 100,000 students, but enrollment is down to roughly 80,000 and is expected to continue dropping. A declining student population leads to underused school buildings, and because schools are funded based on enrollment, some struggle to secure enough money.

While the district is shuttering schools, it is also constructing up to 28 new buildings through the $1 billion 21st Century Schools plan. Some of the children affected by a school closure now attend one of these state-of-the-art facilities.

The process also weeds out some perennially poor-performing schools, with the hope of eventually providing a high quality of education to all Baltimore children.

Four of the schools set for closure are public charters — Banneker, Monarch, NACA and Roots and Branches. The district cited a variety of reasons, including poor academic performance and problems with special education compliance. One commissioner questioned — would she send her own child to those schools?

Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the closure process is “inherently controversial,” and made more so this year by “false assertions by some operators that the district has an ‘anti-charter bias.’ ”

“Neither I personally nor the district as a whole have any form of bias against charter schools,” she said.

After getting slammed about a lack of communication surrounding closure decisions, school system leaders have pledged to seek more community input moving forward. They’re hoping their experience with Gilmor and nearby William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle will be a template.

Pinderhughes was recommended for closure last school year, after officials determined there weren’t enough students in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood to fill both Pinderhughes and Gilmor.

The Sandtown community rallied around Pinderhughes, and the board granted the school a one-year reprieve to let West Baltimore families come up with a plan to re-envision a single, strong school together. A year of meetings yielded a proposal: The board voted Tuesday on closing Gilmor, and having its students merge into Pinderhughes.

That new philosophy appears to have driven the district’s decision to delay the closure of Martin Luther King by one year. MLK has low enrollment and its building has serious infrastructure problems. In the 2020-2021 school year, its students will be rezoned to either Pimlico Elementary/Middle or Edgecombe Circle Elementary. Delaying the closure by a year, district officials say, gives more time for the communities to get to know each other. The district pledged at Tuesday’s meeting to preserve the school’s historic name in some way.

Staff and families also have expressed concerns about whether their children would be safe walking to Edgecombe and Pimlico, which are both more than a mile from MLK.

“Delaying the closure by a year will give district staff time to work with partners more collaboratively to develop and implement additional community-driven solutions,” district officials wrote in a board presentation.

Even so, MLK supporters, including City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, packed Tuesday’s meeting to beg the board to reconsider. They said the school is like a family, and is a vital hub in the Park Heights community.

“These scholars and this school are my heart,” longtime MLK teacher Alison Ambrose said. “I’m dedicated to them. I don’t want to go anywhere.”

After the board’s unanimous vote to close the school, she left the meeting in tears.

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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