On the cracked blacktop behind Park Heights Elementary School, over the din of shrieking children dressed in the school's signature green uniforms, Emma Royal-Davis has attracted a crowd of parents.
"What we all need to do is get a petition together," said Royal-Davis, who has three children enrolled at the school. "We have a voice. We pay taxes. They don't do things like this where people complain."
The parents at the Northwest Baltimore school had just heard the news: The city might close their tiny neighborhood school, one of 12 targeted in a proposed reorganization of the school system.
The people of Park Heights probably won't be the only voices of opposition to the reorganization. On top of closing and combining schools because of declining enrollments - Park Heights has 207 students in a facility that could educate 276 - school officials would transform the roles of many middle and high schools.
Parents and community leaders want to protect their neighborhood schools. Even those like Park Heights that have had poor reputations command the loyalty of residents fearful of losing a neighborhood anchor.
"These are things we need in our neighborhood," Royal-Davis said. "To take these things away from us is just stereotyping us, [saying] you just can do what you want to do, and that's not so."
Built in 1975, Park Heights is in the heart of what has long been a drug marketplace. It has been on the state's list of failing schools since 1998. Many of the students come from such poor homes that if the school didn't provide breakfast and lunch, they might get little to eat.
That doesn't mean parents and grandparents don't love the place they can walk to, twice a day, to drop off and retrieve their charges. They point to an improving neighborhood - just months ago, you could see drug deals from the playground, they say. Not anymore. The school has a new PTA and offers parenting classes and a place just to talk each Wednesday night in the library.
Businesses help out
Business partnerships abound - last year's end-of-school picnic, complete with linen tablecloths, was held in the dining room at the Pimlico Race Course, a local McDonald's provides breakfast on Friday mornings and the 7-Eleven store nearby passes out cold juice on hot days.
And Park Heights' third-graders made double-digit gains in reading and math on the state's 1999 standardized tests.
The school district's proposal would send students like Brandon Royal and his classmate Rodaisha Dorsey to Pimlico Elementary School. Less than a half-mile away, across busy Park Heights Avenue, Pimlico nonetheless seems a world away to some at Park Heights Elementary.
"I'd have to walk 1,000 blocks just to go to a new school," Rodaisha said. At least that's what it seems like to the 9-year-old. "I hope my mother goes and fights for her rights," she said.
Disparity in performance
Pimlico is considered by many a school headed quickly in the right direction. Students made large gains last year and may soon compete with some of the city's most successful schools. Thirty percent of Pimlico's third-graders are reading at grade level, and 33 percent are where they should be in math, test scores show. At Park Heights, 22 percent of third-graders read at grade level and 20 percent have grade-level math skills.
Pimlico Principal Orrester Shaw said his school has plenty of space. The state says he can take 926 pupils; there are 550 there now.
Park Heights is adjacent to the C.C. Jackson Recreation Center and across the street from the Pimlico branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library - both of which Royal-Davis said the neighborhood fought to save from cutbacks.
Principal Rita Jeffers, in her job only since November, broke the news to her stunned staff of 35 in a hastily called meeting Tuesday morning. Just a week into a new school year, the uncertainty for them surely won't raise morale. "I didn't want them to be in the dark about it," she said.
But she didn't have much to tell them. "We just found out about it. We're anxious to get more information, too," said Northwest Area Superintendent Cynthia Janssen.
Janssen said there will always be jobs for good teachers and principals. Where they'll be, she doesn't know.
The charm of Park Heights is in its small size, parents say. Few classes are larger than 20 students and most hover around 15.
"They can deal with each one individually," said Bonita Moulden, whose daughter Jasmine Johnson is in the first grade at Park Heights. "It's better to have smaller classes."
And it is an easy walk for parents and grandparents.
Third-grader Devin Middleton has asthma. "If there's an emergency in school, it's more convenient for me to come down to my child," said his mother, Serena Walker.
Moulden said she has not been active in school affairs, but she added that she'll fight the proposed closing.
She wants to lobby school board members, show them the great things happening at Park Heights, put a face to the school they could vote to close by next fall.
"Whatever I can do to keep this school open, I will do," she said. "How can they close a school down where the children are getting an education? It's not fair at all. My daughter has four more years to go. What's she supposed to do?"