City schools chief Andr?s Alonso is urging underclassmen at a struggling West Baltimore high school to transfer to other schools midyear - a highly unusual step in keeping with his pledge to hold all schools to high standards.
The system is legally prohibited from closing the 575-student school, Homeland Security Academy, in the middle of the academic year, but Alonso is strongly encouraging students to choose to leave and asking the school board to close it this summer. Students will be able to select from 21 other city high schools that have extra space and are deemed stable.
"I feel this is not a school that is working for kids," Alonso said. "I don't feel any need to be patient when it comes to the future of children."
Problems at Homeland Security run the gamut, from high staff turnover to low student performance. Amid low morale, seven of 28 teachers have been absent more than 10 days this school year. After a slew of fights and bathroom fires, several central office administrators were called in to restore order.
Students and parents learned of the decision in a letter sent home this week, and about 60 parents attended a meeting Wednesday night. Officials said parents for the most part have not been actively involved in the school but the system will make a big push to reach out to them. Parents must sign off on any transfers. The system will hold two high school choice fairs for Homeland Security students and parents next week.
Alonso's decision is likely to send shock waves through the school, part of the Walbrook complex, and the entire system, as he makes good on his vow to hold schools accountable if they don't meet expectations. Depending on how many students decide to leave, teachers will likely be transferred, too. No employees will lose their jobs now, but officials warned that those with expired certification are at risk at the end of the academic year, consistent with district policy.
Jamar Jones, 17, said he'd like to see students with behavior problems moved, but the students who want to learn should stay. As a senior, he has no choice but to remain. "I know it's a bad school and everything, but you can still learn a lot of things out of this school," said Jamar, who hopes to attend college and major in business. "I like the teachers."
Homeland Security is one of four small high schools created by the breakup of Walbrook High in 2005. One of those has already closed. Another moved to a strip mall on West North Avenue. The fourth, the Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship, or IBE, shares the old Walbrook building with Homeland Security. Officials say IBE's climate is better and have included it among the schools where Homeland Security students may transfer.
No high school will receive more than 20 Homeland Security students, officials said. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors, along with their parents, have until the end of next week to decide whether they want to transfer and to which school.
While students in most city high schools are taking midterms this week, administrators had students at Homeland Security take their exams early in preparation for the transition; the students are not in school this week.
In its four years of existence, Homeland Security has had five principals. Officials removed the most recent principal, Arnetta Rudisill, in the fall after a spate of bathroom fires, and after her departure, students' behavior spiraled further out of control. After receiving an e-mail from a teacher who said he feared a student would die there, Alonso sent a horde of central office administrators and mentors to the school to restore order, which staff and students say they did.
But maintaining control requires a disproportionate share of resources, and a host of other issues remain. In three out of four subjects, pass rates on the state's new graduation exams last spring were less than 20 percent, compared with citywide averages between 32 and 53 percent. Much work remains for many of the 126 seniors who are staying at the school and who must pass those tests or complete project equivalents in time for graduation.
As a result of a policy allowing city students to choose their high schools, Homeland Security has become for some a last resort, drawing a disproportionate number of students with a history of behavior problems, Alonso said.
Still, English and journalism teacher Philip Turner said most of his students are intellectually curious and want to learn about the world outside Baltimore. He said they've become so accustomed to schools having low expectations for them that "they're amazed when someone stands there and teaches them something."
"They're some of the most inspiring kids a teacher could ever ask to teach, going through the challenges they do to simply come to school every day," said Turner, who will stay at the school through the end of the year because he teaches seniors. "The majority of them should be seeking out higher education. They just need people to show them it's realistic, and it's not realistic in that setting."
The school has very few extracurricular activities and outside partnerships with organizations such as businesses and universities. Alonso said a school with a homeland security theme ought to have several partnerships with law enforcement agencies to help prepare students for law enforcement careers, but it does little to live up to its name. A partnership with the Police Department ended, and the Fire Department is in the process of pulling out.
Logistical challenges are another problem: The old Walbrook building has several entrances and exits. Because of fire code regulations, the school cannot lock any of them. As a result, students and outsiders are able to come and go. On a recent day, a school employee blocked off one entrance with crime-scene tape in an attempt to prevent students from leaving.
Ray Cook, who runs a mentoring program that he brought to Homeland Security as part of the recent attempt to restore order, said the move toward closing the school "should've been done a long time ago."
"It was just creating an unsafe environment for the children," Cook said. "Why should they be here if they're not going to get the things they need?"
THE HOMELAND SECURITY ACADEMY
History: Opened in 2005 as part of the breakup of Walbrook High School.
Enrollment: 575, including 126 seniors who will stay through the end of the school year.
Leadership: Five principals in the past four years.
Student performance: In 2008, the school's pass rates on the High School Assessments were 19% in English, 12% in algebra, 16% in biology and 33% in government.
What's next: Freshmen, sophomores and juniors at Homeland Security Academy and their parents are invited to two high school choice fairs to be held at the school: from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and 8 a.m. to noon Tuesday.