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School system facing redesign

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A proposal to close a dozen Baltimore schools next year is just a small piece of a major redesign of the school system that would shift where thousands of students are educated.

Recommendations formally presented at last night's school board meeting would eliminate some of the traditional middle schools in the city, folding them into elementary or high schools.

Some of the city's largest high schools, troubled by underachievement and violence, would be broken up and turned into magnet schools or combined middle and high schools.

The system also hopes to create more schools that keep children closer to home.

"We really see this as a terrific opportunity to begin a whole new way of thinking" about the system, said C. William Struever, a school board member.

Officials also expect the recommendations to save money - $3.3 million a year, according to school chief Carmen V. Russo.

Last night the school board heard from a small group of parents and others concerned about proposed closings.

Charles Dugger, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Highlandtown Middle School, was among the critics, though his school isn't on the closings list.

"I think it's wrong," Dugger said in an interview after testifying. "It's not public education anymore.

"The communities haven't been involved. The parents haven't been involved. We're dealing with a system that doesn't care."

The recommendations for transforming how city schools are used, written by the consulting firm 3D/International, will be discussed with community groups, parents, teachers and lawmakers over the next six months before the school board votes on them in March or early April.

The proposed closings are among the recommendations.

A blue-ribbon panel headed by Betty Morgan, the chief academic officer, has been formed to evaluate the plan and hold a series of public discussions.

The panel has more than 40 members, including parents, teachers, business people and representatives from educational foundations.

Belt-tightening

"The system is really trying to tighten its belt, and hopefully it has done a good job in its review," said Cathy Brennan, of Advocates for Children and Youth.

"We're concerned that any changes that the school system recommends are based solely on what will improve outcomes for kids and what will improve the instruction in the classroom."

Much of the consultants' plan is contingent on the school system getting money from the state for capital improvements to existing schools.

While the first 12 schools could be closed before next fall, the whole plan would not be completely implemented for many years.

One of the proposals would turn about a quarter of the middle schools into neighborhood schools for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Catholic school model

That model is becoming increasingly popular across the nation and is the one traditionally used in Catholic schools.

The advantage, Morgan said, is that children stay in their neighborhood school during a crucial time in their development.

Parents are more likely to stay involved in the school because they know the teachers and the principal by the time their children get to middle school.

But she said the system will have to provide the schools with science laboratories, playing fields and other - sometimes expensive - items that are not usually needed in elementary schools but are necessary for middle schoolers.

Brennan questioned whether there is educational data to support a move away from the middle school concept.

"I would ask the system, what research do you have to demonstrate that the K-8 structure is more effective than the K-5?" she said.

Converting elementaries

The proposal calls for turning these elementary schools into pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools: Edgecombe Circle, Walter P. Carter, Bentalou, Mary Rodman, Garrett Heights, Govans, Yorkwood, Pimlico, Armistead Gardens, Leith Walk, Beechfield and Martin Luther King.

Officials would also like to reduce the number of high school students in each of the so-called zoned or neighborhood high schools.

The plan calls for taking Thurgood Marshall Middle and Lake Clifton/Eastern High School on the northeast side of the city and turning them both into schools for students from seventh through 12th grades.

On the east side, the system would turn Greenspring Middle School into a high school, thus reducing the number of students going to Northwestern High School.

Russo said the community around Fallstaff Middle School will be given the choice of having the school remain a middle school or being turned into an elementary school.

Northeast Middle would become an elementary.

New technology academy

Under the recommendations, Southern High School would shift from a neighborhood school to become Digital Harbor Technology academy, attracting top students from around the city.

"I think it would be an absolutely wonderful opportunity," said Patricia Blansfield, in her second year as Southern's principal. "I think it's something that's sorely needed for Baltimore City students.

"That doesn't mean I'm not shedding a tear or two. Southern has a long, proud tradition, and hopefully that won't be lost."

Students who would have been ninth-graders at Southern next fall would be transferred to other zoned high schools around the city, although the plan for where they would go has not been made final.

Declining enrollment

The school system's enrollment has been declining for the past two decades. The state says city buildings have the capacity to hold 130,000 children, but the enrollment is only 101,000.

Closing schools would allow the system to operate more efficiently and garner more state aid to construct new schools and repair others.

"While we don't want our schools to be too big, we don't want them to be so small that students don't have a range of services available to them," Morgan said.

For instance, she said, a school with only a couple of hundred children might not be able to afford a reading teacher, but a school with 400 or 500 can.

"Kids can get more services in a consolidated building," Morgan said.

Shifts in population

The school system's problem is not just declining enrollments. Baltimore's population also has shifted.

While the population in the center of the city and its west and east neighborhoods has declined, middle-class neighborhoods in the northeast and northwest have grown.

Some schools, such as Yorkwood in northeast Baltimore, are bursting with students; other schools, such as Madison Square in the center of the city, have too few students.

Most of the schools proposed for closing are just east of Guilford Avenue or in West Baltimore.

Two are in the northwest, two are in the south, one is just west of Bolton Hill and two are in West Baltimore.

Closing considerations

Morgan said the consultant considered what shape the buildings were in, the size of the school population and the educational standards of the school system when making a decision about what buildings should be closed.

The plan calls for the closing of Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary, Park Heights Elementary, Madison Square Elementary, Mildred Monroe Elementary, Malcolm X Primary, Edgewood Elementary, Luther Craven Mitchell Primary, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Arundel Elementary, Lafayette Elementary, Frankford Intermediate and Harbor View Elementary.

Eutaw-Marshburn would be closed only if Booker T. Washington Middle is converted to a facility serving pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Barry Williams, an area executive officer for the school system, said it makes sense for pupils at Mildred Monroe and Madison Square elementaries, both under-enrolled, to be redirected to other neighborhood schools that are nearby.

"Mildred Monroe is certainly doing fine, but it's an older building," said Williams.

"It's in unfortunately a really tough area, but the enrollment is way down."

Williams said he has urged the principals at both schools to meet with teachers to discuss the proposed closings, which he stressed are only preliminary.

"They can't sit there and dwell: 'What's [to] become of me?'" he said. "No one is going to lose their job, neither the principals nor the teachers."

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