The case for keeping Baltimore's Roots and Branches charter school open

Roots and Branches is a progressive charter school in West Baltimore. Recently, the school system’s Office of New Initiatives recommended non-renewal of the school’s charter. Next month, the Board of School Commissioners will vote on the fate of this small school, which means so much to the people in the community. But there’s time during this holiday season to make the case for keeping the school open.

Roots and Branches charter features small classes with a teacher's aide in each class, allowing for individualized attention for each child. The small size of the school promotes a family-like atmosphere, where people all know one another. Here, children who would not do well in a regular school can thrive. As one student explained to me, “Most schools don’t give you chances. Roots and Branches gives you a second chance.”

In a progressive model, the social component is considered as important as the academic. Emotional work is done to repair relationships in a “trauma-informed school.” This includes developing confidence and the ability to express oneself, traits that often determine one's success in life. The school district, to its credit, rated our overall school climate as “effective.”

The heart of this school is arts integration. Recently, students made a body sculpture to express the word “thanks.” One child placed his hands outward as if to receive, while another knelt with closed eyes and hands in prayer pose. Here, sculpture gives an emotional shape to a word. In another example, children painted in the style of a famous artist. Then they were asked to combine the visual with a narrative by answering “What next?” After drawing cat-faced humans, one child wrote, “I think they will sing.”

Suggestive examples should be confirmed by academic testing. The Fountas and Pinnel reading test shows that 85 percent of 2nd to 5th graders achieved a year’s worth of growth, an increase of 30 percent from three years ago. By the time students are in 5th grade, 80 percent are actually at grade level. With the PARCC test, the school’s “average mean growth” was rated effective in math and developing in language and arts. If this were not enough, the city’s own in-depth “School Effectiveness Review” showed a sea of green effective ratings, with only two developing.

So, do the children of West Baltimore deserve an option for a progressive school that has shown success? The caveat is cost. Recently, Michael Bloomberg gave $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University so that a student’s opportunity wouldn’t be based on their financial position. How much are we willing to give to the children of Baltimore who have so much potential, yet are often unable to actualize their dreams?

Under the category of “Governance and Finance,” Roots and Branches was rated ineffective, based on “Audit Content and Internal Controls.” Our operators are unsure about this rating, as the school has received unqualified audit opinions from an independent public accounting firm over the past three years. In the last audit, a soft footnote observed that cash flow and net assets have been decreasing. But should a school be closed based on a footnote? Perhaps the rating is based on dropping enrollment and whether the school is viable for the future — a concern impacting all of Baltimore City, especially its vulnerable neighborhoods. But if the community wants the school, and if the students want the school, the question should be: How can we find a way to ensure the school’s future? The Roots and Branches board, realizing that more help is needed, has recently partnered with the Baltimore Teacher Network to create a viable plan to address this issue.

A short film on the school depicts six houses that are closed just across the street. Harlem Park is a vibrant community with so much potential, but is riddled with high crime, abandoned homes, high unemployment, drugs and hopelessness. Amid this blight, do we shutter a building used as a community center by several groups, bringing life and hope to the neighborhood? Do we close a school house that serves as a beacon of hope to those who remain in the community, trying to raise their children, who only need a chance?

Let’s give the children of West Baltimore a progressive choice for education. Let’s make the “what next,” keeping Roots and Branches open, so the children can keep singing.

Michael Susko, a founder parent and former co-teacher at the school, is a member of the Roots and Branches Board of Directors. He can be reached at msusko@mindspring.com.

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