Alonso wants to close one school, interventions at four others

One chronically underperforming city high school would close at the end of the next school year, and four other schools would be restructured under a reorganization plan announced Tuesday by Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso.

For Alonso, the recommendation to close just a single school in Baltimore stands in marked contrast to the sweeping changes he orchestrated during his first two years as schools chief. Alonso said the more limited proposal is a reflection of students' growth on standardized tests and the improving climate of the district over the past three years.

There's no blueprint for how to address failing schools, according to Alonso, who says his approach is "a changing art form."

"How we make changes has to be reflective of what's going on in the field," he said.

In his first year as CEO, during the 2008-2009 school year, Alonso orchestrated the closing of seven failing schools over a two-year period, with the relocation of five schools to other facilities that would allow for expansion and use existing space better. Last year, he closed five schools, replacing two of them and merging a third with an expanding school.

"This is so remarkably different than 2008," said Neil Duke, president of the city's school board. "We would like to accept this superficially as evidence of school improvement. But whether it's 12 schools or one school, each year presents its own challenges."

This year, Alonso is suggesting just a single closure: the Institute for Business and Entrepreneurship High School. The school in West Baltimore was originally recommended for closure last year, but was granted another year to improve its graduation numbers.

Instead, the school's graduation rate declined along with its enrollment numbers. The school has seen a drop of 30 percentage points in the number of students graduating in the past three years; its students' test scores remain low; and only a few dozen students ranked it as their first choice when selecting a high school, which is not enough to fill a ninth-grade class, school officials said.

The school's leadership has also been at the source of controversy. In March, a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that the principal at IBE, Janice Williams, was accused of recruiting Filipino teachers to buy and sell thousands of dollars of Mary Kay cosmetic products for her. Williams, an independent sales director for Mary Kay, stood to gain financially from each transaction and was the subject of an internal school system investigation last year.

A new principal was appointed to the school in September.

Alonso said that linking the scandal and the decision to close the school "has no merit."

"If IBE's dropout rate had improved — as the rest of the district's has — I might not have approved the recommendation," he said. "It's about outcomes for kids."

Tisha Edwards, Alonso's chief of staff, told the board that IBE's ninth- and 10th-graders would be transferred next year, but its current 11th-graders would be allowed to finish their senior year at the school. The class was relocated from the Walbrook campus just last year, she said, and has been through enough instability.

Edwards said that a lawsuit lodged by a student who was enrolled in a Baltimore high school that was closed brought to light the fact that students in their senior year have opportunities such as college scholarships at stake.

"This is a school that has gone through several transitions throughout the year," Edwards told board members. "We feel pretty strongly to allow the students to keep their school intact. We want them to have an authentic senior experience."

Few members from the public attended the hearing, and board members did not take public testimony. Two public meetings will be held in December, and the school board will make a final decision about the recommendations in January.

Alonso is also recommending that four schools undergo restructuring internally or with the help of outside operators.

Patterson High School, a popular school in Southeast Baltimore, would undergo an internal overhaul to better serve its growing foreign population. The school system is proposing the changes because of declining performance on the High School Assessments among graduating seniors who were first-time test takers.

Patterson High has been in school improvement status, meaning its test scores have not met state standards, for 16 years and needs to strengthen its English for Speakers of Other Languages program, school officials said.

Moravia Park Elementary/Middle School would also place more focus on its growing international population, Edwards said. The school has struggled with the Maryland State Assessments, scoring about 60 percent and 49 percent proficiency in reading and math, respectively.

Edwards said that the changes proposed for the two schools are "critical" for the entire school system to learn how to better serve its foreign populations.

Debra Brooks, principal of Moravia Park, said that she was excited about the prospects for the school being better able to serve all of its students. Brooks acknowledged that her reaction was rare for a principal whose school is slated to undergo radical changes, but she called them necessary.

"The process of having an active voice in this process was important," Brooks said, adding that school officials consulted with her about the recommendations.

Benjamin Franklin High School at Masonville Cove would undergo an internal turnaround that includes implementing new career-preparation programs. It has seen declines in both its High School Assessment pass rates as well as its enrollment numbers, school officials said. The school, which recently transitioned to a high school, has struggled to serve its new population.

Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School, a long-struggling school, was the only one recommended to have an outside operator. School officials noted "insufficient growth" at the school, which has been in school improvement status for 12 years. The school's students scored at proficiency levels in the 40th percentile in reading and math this year.

Under the recommendations, it would offer a science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum. The school's community also has said it would like to see an extended school day or year and additional job trainings for students.

The recommendations come on the heels of decisions made by the school system to expand options for its students. This month, the school system also approved the opening of two transformation schools, two elementary charter schools and one elementary/middle charter school. The board has also approved the expansion of the high-performing Mount Washington Elementary School to serve middle grades next year.

In preparation for the school closing and turnaround recommendations, the school board adopted an updated school closure policy last week. The revised policy requires two public sessions, an impact study for each school and the consideration of factors not previously outlined, such as poor academic performance and where students and staff will be placed. The impact studies for each school will be made public Wednesday.

Several additional meetings will take place in the coming weeks with all five school communities that would be affected.

"We don't have the expectation that people are going to be happy about it," Edwards said. "But we can be respectful."

erica.green@baltsun.com

School changes since 2008

Since city schools CEO Andres Alonso arrived in the district three years ago, the number of schools he has recommended to close and transform has decreased.

2008-2009 school year:

•Closed seven schools over two years, merging two with expanding schools

•Relocated five schools to allow for expansion

2009-2010 school year:

•Closed five schools, replacing two with new schools and merging one with an expanding school

•Relocated four schools to allow for expansion

•Transformed seven schools, pairing five with partner organizations

2010-2011 school year (recommendations):

•Close one school

•Transform four schools

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