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As Baltimore prepares to close more schools, many worry about the communities they anchor

Northwestern High School educated the youth of Baltimore for decades, including future mayor Sheila Dixon and future Raven Terrance West. The sprawling brick high school building was one of the first built in Baltimore after the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. So to many in the Park Heights community, Northwestern’s closing in 2017 represented the erasure of tradition and identity.

“You are dismantling the neighborhoods when you dismantle the schools,” said Michael Johnson, a 1974 Northwestern graduate.

The Baltimore school board has been shuttering schools to deal with population loss and academic failure, and now it’s poised to vote in January on the next round of closures. Two traditional public schools and four public charters could be shut down by the end of the school year, bringing the total number of schools closed since 2004 to 75.

At risk are Gilmor Elementary, Monarch Academy, Northwood Appold Community Academy, Roots and Branches, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary/Middle. The board has already decided to close Banneker Blake Academy, though its leaders have pledged to appeal. Nearly 2,200 children would be affected by the closures, nearly all of them African-American and most coming from poverty.

Baltimore’s closed schools

The map shows the location of the 30 schools the Baltimore school system has closed since 2013, as well as the six proposed for closing at the end of the school year. (Four buildings housed two schools.) Most are in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Schools often are more than just a place to go to class — particularly in poor communities where they may be home to food pantries, meeting spaces and other much-needed resources. But district officials say the closures are necessary to bring the number of schools in line with a dwindling population and ensure students don’t languish at schools that are failing them.

“We know how hard school closures are on communities. We don't take them lightly,” schools chief of staff Alison Perkins-Cohen said. Closings are needed, she said, “when we have neighborhoods where the population has gotten so low and there’s just not enough students to support vibrant educational options.”

More than two dozen schools have closed since 2013, the year Baltimore signed a celebrated agreement with the state and other partners devoting $1 billion toward rebuilding or renovating up to 28 school buildings. A lesser-known aspect of the 21st Century School Buildings Plan is the requirement that the district vacate 26 school buildings and turn them over to the city government. So some schools have to close and merge with another before children can move into one of the city’s promised, state-of-the-art buildings.

Beyond that mandate, the district also has been closing some perennially poor-performing schools. The district’s CEO makes closure recommendations every year based on a review of schools, taking into account academic achievement, climate and enrollment. Public charter schools are evaluated every few years, and can be closed if they’re falling short.

The city school system was built to serve more than 100,000 kids, but enrollment is down to roughly 80,000 this year and is expected to continue dropping.

Declining enrollment creates underused school buildings. Because schools are funded based on enrollment, some struggle to secure enough money to operate effectively. A few of the schools shut down in recent years were less than a quarter full. From 2013 to 2018, the schools chosen for closure had an average utilization rate of roughly 55 percent, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis.

Many of these school buildings also were in poor condition. District officials say they can’t afford to keep so many aging, half-empty schools open. In a district with a nearly $3 billion maintenance backlog, it’s expensive and often inefficient to divert limited resources to underutilized buildings.

District officials haven’t set a target, Perkins-Cohen said, for the number of schools they want operating in Baltimore.

The district’s utilization rate was 83 percent as of September 2017. Meanwhile in Baltimore County, where enrollment is rising, the school system is nearly at capacity.

But to many affected by school closures, it’s more than a numbers game.

There were schools where generations of family members wore the same colors. The buildings were safe places in a city marred by gun violence. The teachers, students and staff were like family.

There’s no Baltimore-specific research on what’s happened to the children shuffled out of closed schools, so it’s hard to know how the experience shaped the education of thousands of kids. But research in other cities has found troubling trends.

Stanford University researchers looked at the impact of school closures in 26 cities, and found that less than half of students displaced by a closure ended up in better schools. Another study — looking at the effects of Chicago’s 50 school closures in 2013 — found students who attended a school scheduled for closure had lower-than-expected test scores the year of the announcement, which researchers partially attributed to how disruptive the year was for children.

Nikkia Rowe spent nearly two decades as a Baltimore educator, working in four schools that have closed. She wants a moratorium on closures until their impact here is studied. She wants to know how it affects a child’s likelihood to graduate. She wants to know whether a neighborhood that loses a school sees more violence.

“What is happening to the kids?” Rowe said.

Michelle Renée Valladares, associate director of the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center, said closures leave children feeling like they can’t be taught and blaming themselves for a school’s failure.

“This is the message cities are sending to kids: You’re not good enough for us,” she said. “No matter how policymakers and leaders try to couch it, that’s how kids interpret it.”

Studies have determined that school systems disproportionately target schools with large shares of minority students for closure. Since 2013, the average student body at schools closed in Baltimore was 95 percent black. The district as a whole is about 80 percent African-American.

Towson University professor Jessica Shiller says it’s no surprise to see which neighborhoods witness school closings.

“The decades of disinvestment, white flight, continued segregation, as well as the more recent installation of neoliberal reforms, like school choice, drained these communities of resources and of students,” she wrote in a paper published in an education journal.

In 2015, the city school system closed Langston Hughes Elementary/Middle in Northwest Baltimore. It is now considering closing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., less than 2 miles away. Both are within City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton’s district.

She laments the symbolism of closing a school named for a legendary African-American poet and then another named for a Civil Rights icon.

“It’s like you’re removing history,” she said.

Perkins-Cohen acknowledged the impact policies like redlining and discrimination have had on Baltimore’s neighborhoods and schools.

More K-12 education news »

“Because of that history, there are neighborhoods that have been disadvantaged and not afforded a fair opportunity for a long time,” she said. “We certainly don't want to exacerbate that.

“But at the same time, leaving schools that don't have enough resources to be successful is not serving them well either.”

She recalls a student she met while on a tour of Baltimore’s Bard High School Early College. She was impressed with the boy’s eloquence, and asked him where he attended school before transferring to Bard. He said W.E.B. Du Bois High School — a school that the district closed in 2015. He said while he was enrolled there, he frequently skipped class and was “totally disengaged.”

“We need to make sure the options we’re giving our students are worthy of them,” Perkins-Cohen said.

Some of the schools on this year’s closure list are among the worst-ranked schools in the state.

Perhaps the most frequent concern Middleton has heard from families is the longer walks their children face. Barring safety concerns or other specific issues, the district provides buses only for elementary students who live more than a mile from their school.

After the closure of Langston Hughes, students were rezoned to either Arlington Elementary/Middle or Pimlico Elementary/Middle, both part of the 21st Century Schools program.

Nathaniel White, 42, lived across the street from Langston Hughes, where his son attended through first grade. The boy now walks about 25 minutes to the new Pimlico building, along with his two younger siblings. It’s impossible for the children to avoid boarded-up houses and drug dealers on corners, White says.

“If I'm at work, he's walking them home by himself,” said White, who himself went to Langston Hughes and later Northwestern. “You're so busy worrying, ‘Did he get hit by a car? Are they caught in some cross-fire?’ ”

It’s not just the commute that’s gotten worse for White’s son: He was bullied at the new school, and his academics suffered.

“His attitude about school has changed,” White said.

Many communities have put up tough fights after learning their schools were slated for closure.

Monarch Academy supporters have held rallies outside district headquarters, carrying orange posters reading #SaveMonarch. The public charter school, filled with bright murals, hopes to uplift the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood. It serves about 1,000 students. More than 970 are black. The district is recommending Monarch close because of low test scores and problems with how the school teaches students with disabilities.

Supporters of Monarch and other schools scheduled for closing packed a recent school board meeting. Children and teachers begged the board not to shut down their beloved schools. One girl said the board would be “heartless” to close a school that provides Baltimore children solace.

A Monarch fifth-grader wrote her speech on a torn-out piece of lined paper she kept folded in the pocket of her khakis.

“Please do not close my school down,” 10-year-old Tayonna Wiggins said. “You don’t know what it means to me that you will shut down my life.”

The school board has been swayed by activism before.

William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle was recommended for closure last school year. District officials said there weren’t enough students in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood to fill both Pinderhughes and nearby Gilmor.

Supporters rallied around Pinderhughes, and the board granted a one-year reprieve to give the West Baltimore community time to draft a plan to create one strong school, together. A year of community meetings yielded a plan: Gilmor would close, and its students would merge into Pinderhughes instead.

The Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, whose son attends Pinderhughes, said he hopes the process will be a template for the district. School system officials agree.

“Because of the population loss we’ve had, we’re going to have to close schools,” Witherspoon said. “But if you bring the community to the table and have real dialogue, and if the community’s voice is respected on the front end as opposed to back end, you can come away with a real compromise.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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