Canton angry about school

The Baltimore Sun

Fearful for their safety and property values, Canton residents are furious over a decision by the Baltimore school system to put a new middle/high school in their neighborhood.

Neighbors of Canton Middle School say its students have repeatedly attacked and harassed them, and they thought the trouble would be over when the school closes within the next year. Now, the system is planning to use the building to house one of six new combined middle/high schools run by outside operators.

City Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents the area, is so angry about the decision -- which he said was made with no community input -- that he is threatening to hold up the school system's budget when it comes before the council for approval. He said a majority of council members have agreed to support him.

"This is absolutely absurd," said Kraft, who has called a community meeting for Thursday night. "It was pledged to the community that there would be no school on that site."

The school system made plans under previous administrations to close the several buildings as it strives to operate more efficiently in the face of declining enrollment. But as city schools chief Andres Alonso aims to create two dozen combined middle/high schools as part of a strategy for reform, he decided to keep some of the buildings under system control. The goal is to create high quality schools to reverse the enrollment decline, Alonso said.

At a news conference yesterday, system officials announced that philanthropists have donated $4.4 million for the creation of the first batch of middle/high schools, scheduled to open this summer. All will operate in buildings that were previously slated to close.

Alonso said the initiative is designed to offer more high-quality choices to parents who often feel they don't have a good option in public education after their children finish elementary school.

"Every single child in the city deserves a great school regardless of who their parents are, where they're born, what their economic situation is," Alonso said. "Let's make no mistake about it: This is about social justice."

Last fall, Alonso began to approach local and national foundations seeking $25 million to open two dozen combined middle/high schools in the next few years. In March, the school board approved the creation of five schools and allowed an existing charter high school, Baltimore Freedom Academy, to add sixth through eighth grades.

Twelve Baltimore-based philanthropic groups, including the Open Society Institute, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Abell Foundation, are giving $3.3 million for the first batch of schools. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is giving $1.1 million. All of the money was previously designated for high school reform in the city, but the funding was frozen in recent years as the initiative stalled under Alonso's predecessors.

Most of the middle/high schools will open with classes of 80 sixth-graders and 80 ninth-graders, adding a middle school grade and a high school grade each year until all are served.

In Canton, the Friendship Public Charter School company plans to open the Friendship Academy of Science and Technology. In addition to sixth and ninth grades, it also might absorb the final class of eighth-graders at Canton Middle, at 801 S. Highland Ave.

That doesn't sit well with some residents of the gentrified neighborhood, many of whom do not send their own children to the school and say students have caused repeated problems.

"There's groups of children that wander up and down the alleys. They crawl under people's decks and smoke pot," said Susan Colligan, a pediatric social worker who lives a half-block from Canton Middle. "At the bus stops when the children leave school, there are many observed incidents of the children in groups assaulting innocent bystanders."

Colligan said residents have made Canton "a very healthy, clean part of the city."

"Houses that used to go at public auction for a dollar are now going for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we're giving the city a lot of revenue," she said. "We don't want to feel unsafe in our neighborhood, and we don't want to lose the ability to sell our homes at fair-market value."

Residents have brought their concerns to city police, who said this week that they would have an officer stationed near the school on weekday afternoons. Maj. Roger Bergeron, commander of the Southeastern District, wrote in an e-mail posted on a community LISTSERV that "the issue with the school kids is quite serious, and the Police Department is attempting to identify those involved."

Officials from Friendship, which runs five schools in Washington and was recently recognized by the College Board for its students' success on Advanced Placement tests, emphasized that their school will be different than what's been there before.

Patricia Brantley, chief operating officer, said the company runs "a very rigorous academic program" with an emphasis on values and integrity.

"We are looking to put something completely new and different in that building," said Jerry Haley, a spokesman for Friendship, which also will open a school in Northeast Baltimore in the building once occupied by Dr. Samuel L. Banks High. "We've had some tremendous success working in urban environments."

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