Baltimore school board votes to close four sites

Baltimore school administrators say declining enrollment at some schools prompt possible closures

The Baltimore school board voted Tuesday night to close four schools with declining enrollment.

Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary School will close this summer and move into a new building with Frederick Elementary School. Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises noted that the two schools are within a mile of each other.

Grove Park Elementary/Middle School will close in 2018 and move into Calvin Rodwell Elementary School, which will get a new building. Santelises' administration said Grove Park is "unsustainably small," with just 282 students.

Baltimore I.T. Academy will close next year because of low enrollment and poor academic outcomes.

And Northwestern High School, which shares space with Forest Park High School, will close next year and move into a renovated Forest Park building. The two schools were competing for a limited number of students, schools officials said.

School officials also recommended that Furley Elementary School move to the Thurgood Marshall High School building until Furley's roof and structural problems are repaired, a process estimated to take three to five years.

One of the more controversial recommendations, to close Renaissance Academy in West Baltimore, was deferred until Jan. 24. School system officials have been working with Renaissance administrators and school boosters to consider alternatives, including the possibility of moving the school to another site.

Three Renaissance students were killed last school year, including Ananias Jolley, who was stabbed by classmate Donte Crawford. The teen said the stabbing was in self-defense, and he was acquitted of murder charges in September. The high school is housed on the third floor of Booker T. Washington Middle School.

Proposals to close the other schools also drew some critics.

Noted civil rights activist Helena Hicks, whose two children attended Grove Park some 50 years ago, said the school should remain open. Children will have to pass by liquor stores and busy intersections to make it to Calvin Rodwell, she said.

"They're used to trees, freedom, a whole wooded area, they're used to deer and seeing foxes all through the neighborhood," said Hicks, 82. "They're used to nature, they're not used to asphalt and buses and stoplights and gunfire."

Hicks said Northwest Baltimore will be left with few school options, making it difficult to attract new homeowners. She said such a decision would not be made in a white neighborhood.

"They wouldn't do this in Roland Park," she said. "You wouldn't do it anywhere that was white. But you think you can march into a black community, no matter what it looks like."

Commissioner Michelle Harris Bondima said her vote in favor of closing Grove Park brought her "near tears." She said her family lives in the community.

"Even though I am emotional about this, it is clear to me what's going on now is something that must happen," she said.

Michael Johnson, president of the alumni association for Northwestern High School, said the school was well integrated decades ago, with a mix of Jewish and African-American students. In more recent years, the population has become more solidly black and its population has declined. Northwestern counts among its alumni former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Johnson said the solution should have been for the school system to designate Northwestern as an international relations school and add new programs to attract students who wouldn't otherwise attend the school.

"You have to bring the programs up to the school that everyone can buy into," Johnson said. "Comprehensive high schools don't work anymore, everybody knows that. You have to have a reason for the child to come to the school to learn."

Baltimore schools officials review schools each year to determine which to close, merge or relocate, examining academic performance and enrollment. They also have a 10-year plan to consolidate, rebuild and renovate schools.

Last year, the Carroll County Board of Education voted to close North Carroll High, New Windsor Middle and Charles Carroll Elementary schools at the end of the 2015-2016 school year because of declining enrollment. Those decisions were upheld by the state Board of Education in June after appeals by community members.

No other school systems in the region are planning school closures, and some are planning to build new schools to keep up with growing enrollment.

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