Students, communities worry as recommendation puts schools in limbo

Angelica McKnight was sitting in her sixth-period Advanced Placement government class at Heritage High School one afternoon last month when she got the news.

Under a proposal before the city school board, she and her classmates could lose their senior prom and their graduation at Heritage. Their school would close in June.


"Everybody was angry, some people were crying," McKnight said. Teachers hugged the students and told them they'd be missed, she said. "They love us."

Students, parents, faculty and neighbors will have a final opportunity Tuesday to urge board members to reconsider. The meeting is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at the district's North Avenue headquarters.


The board is reviewing a plan to close six schools. The plan, developed by school officials, is aimed at using city school space more efficiently amid low enrollment and spreading $980 million in construction money as widely as possible.

The schools recommended for closure are Heritage, W.E.B. DuBois High, Abbottston Elementary, Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary/Middle, Langston Hughes Elementary and Northeast Middle.

Those who oppose the plan describe the schools as beacons of hope to children in low-income, crime-ridden areas of the city, and say they are sources of pride for their neighborhoods and alumni. They question the wisdom of closing schools to save money, and several warn of devastating consequences for the students caught in the transition.

McKnight, 17, says Heritage has transformed her. Before she enrolled in the high school, she said, she was a "bad and very disrespectful" middle-schooler who "stayed in trouble."

Joining the Student Government Association, the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and the volleyball team freshman year helped her grow up, she said. Morning meetings and workouts with her 30 fellow JROTC cadets instilled discipline that she channels into her work on an SGA panel that decides punishments for members who break rules.

"I'm more mature," she said. "It's helped me a lot. I've come a long way."

Kyle Dawe, a history teacher at Heritage, says he often hears that "kids will adapt."

"For 95 percent of my students, that's true," he said. "But for the other 5 percent of them, closing this school will be the end of their education. For them, this school is the first stable, meaningful thing in their life."


Richard McCoy, president of the Heritage alumni association, says the school serves as an anchor to the Clifton Park neighborhood.

The high school's four-court gym hosts three citywide recreational basketball tournaments a year. Local churches hold regular services, and troupes have performed theater projects in the auditorium. Real Food Farm operates six greenhouses on the Lake Clifton campus, teaching students how to garden and delivering fruits and vegetables to neighbors in its Mobile Farmers' Market truck.

The high school has long offered a Head Start day care program to neighborhood preschoolers.

"A big concern is what will happen to that program," McCoy said. "Every school's not set up to have a day care."

Low enrollments are a reason the communities love the schools, and a reason that administrators are recommending they be closed. The state helps fund schools on a per-pupil basis. City schools officials say operating those sites below capacity — some are using only 30 percent of their space — is fiscally irresponsible.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, the district's executive director of new initiatives, said the money saved — an average of $190,000 in utilities and maintenance costs per school each year — could be reinvested in better buildings and programs at other schools.


The six schools each have fewer than 500 students. Abbottston Elementary has 186 students, Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary/Middle has 195, Langston Hughes has 176, Northeast Middle has 354, W.E.B. DuBois has 301 and Heritage has 459.

School officials said they were unable to provide a student-to-teacher ratio for the schools scheduled for closure. The average class size throughout the system is 17.48 students.

Middle or high school students whose school is closed could transfer into any other school in the city for which they are qualified. Elementary school students would go to other schools in their neighborhoods.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district includes Abbotston and Heritage, has objected to the proposal. She warns that Waverly — the nearest elementary school to Abbottston — doesn't have the space to take on the extra students. She says Heritage is the only "general local high school in this area of the city."

The councilwoman has proposed boosting enrollment at Abbottston and keeping Heritage open long enough to allow current students to graduate.

George Mitchell is president of the Langston Hughes Community Action Association. When he learned the elementary school had been recommended for closure, he invited school commissioners and schools CEO Gregory E. Thornton for a visit.


Mitchell told Thornton and other officials in November that Langston Hughes is in better shape than Pimlico or Arlington, the two nearest elementary schools, and children would have to walk through dangerous neighborhoods to get to them.

Latia Tinson has an eighth-grader and a pre-kindergartner at Langston Hughes. Tinson says she transferred the 8-year-old and 4-year-old from Pimlico Elementary for a small-school feel. She says she prefers its cleaner, less-crowded classrooms, and she texts with at least one teacher.

"It's a homey feel," she said. "It's a totally different feel." By closing small schools like Langston Hughes, she said, "you're giving them no hope. Give these children a chance."

Melissa Feigenbaum, who teaches third grade at Langston Hughes, says small class sizes make the school more tightly knit than others in the area.

"You get to know [students] on a more personal level," she said. "It helps get them engaged. I can find different things to match their interests to help them learn."

If Heritage High closes, Melanie Long will move to her fourth high school in four years. The 16-year-old went to boarding school in Hershey, Pa., for ninth grade and another high school in her native Lancaster, Pa., for 10th grade. She came to Baltimore and enrolled at Heritage for her junior year.


"Being here, the friends that I have in this school are the only ones I know in Baltimore," she said.

She wouldn't necessarily transfer to the same schools as those friends. Some plan to attend Reach! Partnership School, which would stay open in the Lake Clifton building until 2020, so they can continue playing sports on the same fields and with the same coaches. Others might apply to City College or select another school in the city.

Jason Botel, executive director of the education advocacy group MarylandCAN, says closures are sometimes necessary, but the school system needs to put students in a place to succeed.

"How do we give them intimate relationships with adults who are committed to them, while having the efficiencies needed?" he said.

Botel said an emphasis on leadership is crucial.

"What we really need to focus on in every building is that they're in a place that has a great principal, and that they hire and retain great teachers," he said. "Because at the end of day, the teachers are what is going to lead students to achieve at high levels, not the size of the school."


Perkins-Cohen, the system's new initiatives director, said she is confident the plan will help the school system be better "stewards of our resources." But she said it will require "tough conversations" about closures.

"People are attached to those schools, and every school in our district has students doing great things," she said. "The challenge is that the way we spread our resources across the schools we have is just not the best way to ensure that all students get access to high-quality programming."

The city school board is expected to vote on the closure plan Dec. 17.