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School closure debate highlights tough year in city neighborhoods

Residents have testified before the city school board as it considers closing several schools.

When Debra Baker raced to stay ahead of rioters on Pennsylvania Avenue last April with the children she cared for at her home day care center, there were few places in her Penn-North neighborhood where she could take refuge. Westside Elementary School was one of them.

"I didn't know where else to run with my kids when they were tearing down our stuff, but they took me in," said Baker, a 40-year resident of Penn-North who has run the day care center for 30 years.

Baker and other residents have testified in recent weeks before the city school board as it considers closing Westside and four other schools at the end of the school year.

Westside is located in the neighborhood where looters and rioters set stores ablaze amid protests over the death of Freddie Gray a week after he suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody.

City schools CEO Gregory Thornton has recommended closing Maritime Industries Academy High School, Baltimore Community High School and Westside. He also recommended that two charter schools, Roots and Branches and the Maryland Academy of Technology & Health Sciences, lose their contracts.

The last public hearing on this year's recommendations will be held at 5 p.m. Thursday at city school headquarters. The school board is scheduled to vote on the recommendations in January.

The public forums are an annual exercise that occur after recommendations to close underperforming programs and, in recent years, underused buildings. School officials said they base the recommendations on factors such as academic performance and enrollment and also on leadership and financial problems at charter schools.

But residents and political leaders said this year is different because of Gray's arrest and the unrest that followed.

"We've got the entire world looking at us right now," former City Council President Lawrence Bell told the school board at a recent hearing.

"We say education is the key to turning things around," Bell added. "This is no time to be cutting resources at schools, especially a school that is at ground zero."

The hearings have spurred a debate on the school board about whether the district should slow down a plan to close dozens of school buildings in the next several years. The proposed closures are part of a $1 billion deal approved by the state legislature that will allow the district to renovate and rebuild 26 new buildings.

"The city's in a raw place since Freddie Gray, and to close schools in the poorest communities in Baltimore is just further devastation of those communities," said Jessica Shiller, an education professor at Towson University who has studied school closures across the country.

"We need to have a moratorium on school closures until we know more about the impact the current closures had on the kids who have had to face them."

Thornton recently addressed concerns about the school closures, saying that in many communities, "the schools are the only thing that's left."

But he said for students to have new state-of-the-art buildings, the district has to close underused ones that are a drain on the district's resources.

"We have a bigger footprint than we need," he said. "We are empathetic, but the economic forces live."

Annie Hall, president of the Penn-North Community Association, said the decision to close Westside "further propagates a feeling of hopelessness" in the neighborhood.

"Penn-North continues to be left out of plans for Baltimore, and our children's' educational needs are falling prey to this behavior," Hall said.

At a recent hearing, Baker spoke of the impact schools have in a community. For example, at Westside some residents rely on the school's food pantry. "You can't get [food stamps] if you make $1 too much," Baker said. "But Westside — they don't turn you away."

Representatives of Roots and Branches and MATHS charter schools also are fighting for their schools. They have challenged the data that the district used to justify their closures, such as outdated state assessments.

Christine Romero, an assistant teacher at Roots and Branches, said the five-year-old school hasn't been open long enough to show sustained growth.

"We are more than a simple snapshot of an assessment hung in time," she said.

Sean Anthony-Stinnett, chairman of the board of directors at MATHS, said that the school is offering students experiences that aren't reflected in test data, such as a financial literacy program. What's more, he said, recent graduates have received $1.8 million in scholarships.

City school board commissioner Lisa Akchin said that while the school system is promising better school facilities in the future, students' educational careers are being disrupted in the meantime.

"If we need to slow it down to do one less school in order for everyone going through this process to have the opportunities that they deserve, I think we should look at that," she said.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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