Supporters rally around East Baltimore charter school that's recommended for closure

Tanya Bridges’ 11-year-old son wakes up every morning, puts on a striped tie and heads to Banneker Blake Academy, a public charter school in East Baltimore. When the sixth-grader comes home at night, she says his brain is filled with dreams of Harvard.

“He’s not longer living in his neighborhood. He’s living on the Harvard campus in his mind,” Bridges said. “I don’t know of a better school for black males to make them start dreaming ahead.”

But the school’s future is in jeopardy. The school board voted in February to give the all-boys charter middle school a one-year conditional renewal, contingent on it improving in various areas. The district has since determined not enough progress has been made, and is recommending the board revoke the charter, which would force the school to close.

The district says Banneker Blake still struggles with special education compliance, operational practices and financial management.

“This is work that’s not always popular, but it’s work that’s necessary to ensure our young people are getting the education they deserve,” schools CEO Sonja Santelises said of the charter renewal process.

Supporters of the school, which serves predominantly low-income black boys, say closing the school would be robbing Baltimore children of a transformational education.

Flanked by those supporters, the school’s founder, Carl Stokes – a former City Councilman and school board member – stood outside school headquarters on North Avenue Monday and implored the school system not to shut it down. The school board will vote on the issue during its Tuesday night meeting.

“Do not close a school that is working academically for black boys in Baltimore,” Stokes said.

Banneker Blake specializes in science, math, engineering, arts and technology. Administrators require students to wear a tie, blazer, khakis and dress shoes. Students must call fellow students “scholars” and their principal a “headmistress.” A school system evaluation said they out-performed their peers at other schools academically.

But the charter review process also revealed troubling findings. The school demonstrated a “lack of understanding of its responsibilities as it relates to students with disabilities,” said Angela Alvarez, director of the Office of New Initiatives that oversees the charter renewal process. District officials say they have had to pour additional time and resources into trying to bring Banneker Blake into compliance, including scheduling nearly 50 meetings this year to ensure each child with a disability is getting an appropriate level of services.

Brittany Miller, whose son graduated from Banneker Blake last year and now attends St. Frances Academy, said in an interview that the school provided a “horrible” experience where her child was mistreated by teachers and fellow students.

“The teachers there are not well trained,” she said. “They have no idea how to educate students. ... They have no one who is experienced in dealing with students with special needs.”

Banneker Blake officials say the school has “improved substantially” over the past year in special education.

The district also identified problems with grade reporting and said Banneker Blake violated policies regarding student privacy and collective bargaining. They also cited persistently low-enrollment, which Stokes blamed on the uncertainty hanging over the school’s future. He said 60 families left the school over the summer because they couldn’t be assured the district would renew the charter.

Stokes denied some of the findings in the system’s review, denouncing them as politically motivated “lies.” He pointed to the school system’s own analysis of Banneker Blake, an evaluation that called the school “highly effective” in “achievement growth,” which assesses changes in student achievement over time. The school 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.

“We are academically successful for black boys in Baltimore,” Stokes said. “We’re saving their lives. We’re changing culture. These young men come every day in shirts and ties. They say, ‘Yes sir. Yes ma’am.’ They are competing with each other to be excellent.”

He then said he believed the school CEO was motivated by politics.

“I’ve got to tell you there’s some politics here,” Stokes said. “I’ve been told by the CEO that she doesn’t like my friend the governor, which is outrageous. That has nothing to do with us. That has nothing to do with our school.”

Santelises vehemently denied that she would allow politics to interfere with a school closure. She said her recommendation is based only on the fact that the school is falling “woefully short.”

“I don’t have time to track Mr. Stokes’ relationships with anybody, quite frankly,” she said. “This is about outcomes and equity for kids.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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