Baltimore school board votes to revoke charter of Banneker Blake Academy, makes other closure recommendations

Dressed in maroon and gold, supporters of Banneker Blake Academy packed the Baltimore school board meeting Tuesday night. Parents, teachers and students at the all-boys public charter spilled over into overflow rooms, hoping their show of solidarity and passionate testimony would convince the board their school was worth saving.

But the school board unanimously voted to revoke the school’s charter, citing persistent problems with special education compliance, financial management and operations.

The school is now scheduled to close in June. The board’s vote ends nine months of uncertainty for the East Baltimore charter that many families say is a lifeline for its students — its scholars — who are predominantly low-income, black boys.

The school board decided in February to give the all-boys charter middle school a one-year conditional renewal, contingent on it improving in certain problem areas.

Carl Stokes — the school’s founder and a former city councilman — made his case for more than a half-hour Tuesday night. He acknowledged that the administration had stumbled in the past, but said it had now surpassed the four benchmarks set by the district. He says he plans to appeal the board’s decision to the state school board.

“We’re going to continue to fight,” he said. “They’re closing a school that’s academically successful for black boys.”

He pointed to an analysis that showed Banneker Blake ranked in the 81st percentile of similar schools in math and the 84th percentile for English. It has partnered with Morgan State University to bring in tutors for the boys.

Still, district officials said serious problems persisted, especially with regard to special education services. The school system has had to pour additional time and resources into ensuring compliance, said Angela Alvarez, the executive director for the Office of New Initiatives. The school’s shortcomings have resulted in a complaint being filed with the civil rights office, she said. Banneker Blake enrolls roughly 200 students, about a quarter of which receive special education.

Stokes called the district’s statements “a report full of lies.”

Calvin Robinson, 11, said he’s holding on to hope that his beloved school remains open. Banneker Blake helped him “write faster, read better and understand more stuff in books,” he said. He now dreams of attending Harvard, and one day becoming an entrepreneur or an author.

His mother, Tanya Bridges, said she’s not going to start looking for a new school for him just yet. She can’t imagine sending her boy anywhere but Banneker, where he proudly wears a blazer, tie and dress shoes each day.

“I’m going to keep fighting with them,” she said. What the school board asked for “has been met.”

As the board discussed the school, someone in the crowd muttered: “What are we going to do with our boys?”

District officials on Tuesday also presented a series of other recommendations that would shrink the district’s footprint as student enrollment continues to decline.

They’re proposing two traditional public schools close this summer, along with three other charter schools.

The district is recommending the board vote to close Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary/Middle School in Northwest Baltimore, which is struggling with low enrollment and is housed in an aging building. It had some of the district’s highest repair costs over the past two years, and because it’s built into a hill, problems with water damage and flooding are difficult to fix.

The district proposes rezoning the elementary students to Edgecombe Circle Elementary, while middle school students would go to Pimlico Elementary/Middle. A community member told the board she was concerned about the safety of the neighborhoods that students would have to walk through to get to these farther-away schools. A teacher discussed the long-term negative effects that shuttering a school has on children.

Gilmor Elementary is also scheduled to close and merge with nearby William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle. Last year, it was Pinderhughes on the chopping block, but the community rallied to save the school, which they said was a vital anchor in the struggling Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.

District officials worked with the West Baltimore community activists to develop a plan, acknowledging that there are not enough students in the area to support two elementary schools.

The new recommendation: Gilmor will close this summer and move into the Pinderhughes building with the goal of creating one strong program for Sandtown children.

The Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, who helped rally support for Pinderhughes, said he was thankful the process was revamped and allowed for inclusive feedback.

“This is a template for how things should work, in my opinion,” he said. “Baltimore City Public Schools should work alongside the community to make these decisions.”

The district cited poor academic performance or financial mismanagement in recommending that three charter schools — Monarch Academy, Northwood Appold Community Academy and Roots and Branches School — close.

A final vote on these recommendations will be held in January.

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
36°