The Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City Public Schools votes on Jan. 8 on whether to close Monarch Academy Baltimore, a 1,000-student public charter school in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood, or allow this school to continue to operate.
Sonja Santelises, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO, asserts that Monarch Academy Baltimore’s PARCC scores are one of the main reasons for her recommendation for closure. She recently told school officials that the more than $15 million investment in Monarch Academy Baltimore’s state-of-the-art building and their work with the whole child and the trauma-informed supports they have provided to students, essentially, do not matter. According to Ms. Santelises, only outcomes matter, and the school’s PARCC scores aren’t good enough.
However, a true review of student success is individual growth during a school year. Monarch Academy Baltimore’s iReady scores, a national assessment, are showing significant gains. From fall to spring in the last two years, Monarch increased the number of students on or above grade level by more than 15 percent.
We believe outcomes do matter, so what would be the outcomes for our students if this unique school is in fact closed?
Research from Stanford University demonstrates that closing schools in and of itself does not lead to higher academic performance. Students must have better schools to go to if the pain of closure is going to be worth the trauma it causes students, families and communities. But better school alternatives for Monarch Academy Baltimore students are extremely limited. In fact, the majority of Monarch students will not benefit academically from the school’s closure because 67 percent will be returned to neighborhood zone schools with academic performance outcomes that are no better — and many worse — than Monarch Academy Baltimore’s. In the recent Maryland Public Schools Report Cards, 23 schools in Baltimore City earned only one star, more than the rest of Maryland’s school districts combined. Monarch Academy Baltimore, received two stars, in part due to the additional support services the school provides.
If academic gains do not result from the closure of schools, what does result? Trauma is the only guaranteed result. In a city of trauma, that is the one outcome our children and community cannot afford.
The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado cautions that a “vast amount” of research documents the damage school closings do to children and communities. Many studies, the NEPC found, confirm that closing schools in the name of improving student achievement is a “high-risk/low-gain strategy” that fails to increase students’ achievement or overall well-being. The same study found that students struggle academically, socially and emotionally after their school is closed.
It is also common that students from closed schools are not able to access well-resourced, high-quality schools in their district. And the evidence is clear that school closures disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color.
Simply put, children suffer when schools are closed. Ms. Santelises cannot demonstrate that student achievement will improve if Monarch Academy Baltimore’s students are returned to neighborhood schools. This does not put the well-being of students first. Our students will lose their friends, their teachers, their counselors and therapists, their structure and their consistency.
Closing Monarch Academy Baltimore only perpetuates another trauma, another loss of a place in the community that is safe from the violence outside, that provides real continuity and makes each child feel like a valued member of a community. In a student body already staggered by trauma, many children will suffer behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, health problems, attentional issues and even PTSD.
And then what? Who will receive these displaced, traumatized students? Who are the receiving schools that will provide trauma-informed care and resources to these students?
Our students — and the receiving schools — will be left dealing with the trauma of closure with insufficient mental health supports, which will only further compromise their likelihood of success.
There is another option. Monarch Academy Baltimore and Baltimore City Public Schools should engage with each other, community members and families in developing and implementing strategies for continuing to improve test scores and to address overall student achievement.
Monarch Academy Baltimore must continue to invest in the resources and wraparound supports so beneficial to its students, while making additional investments in academic supports. Baltimore City Public Schools should incorporate many more indicators other than just test scores to understand a school’s effectiveness.
In a city filled with trauma, will the Board of School Commissioners choose PARCC and pain or stability and promise? There is a clear choice. Our children’s futures hang in the balance.
Frank Kros is president of the Transformation Education Institute, director of the National At-Risk Education Network and executive vice president of The Children’s Guild, the parent company of Monarch Academy Public Charter School in Baltimore. His e-mail address is KrosF@ChildrensGuild.org.