Once again, a CEO of Baltimore City Schools is recommending the closure of Renaissance Academy, and, once again, that recommendation is being met with steadfast resistance by state and city officials, faith leaders, anchor institutions, students and families, and community members. Closing the school is short-sighted, poorly conceived, and ultimately unsupportive of students and families most in need of support by city schools.
In fall 2015, CEO Gregory Thornton rightly pulled the school off the list of recommended closures when faced with the pushback by students, alumni, families and partners who spoke to the positive relationships between students and staff, high-level partnerships, and supports provided by its community school lead agency, Promise Heights, an initiative led by the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
The 2015-2016 academic year proved to be extremely difficult for the students, families and staff of Renaissance Academy, as they suffered through the loss of three students to homicide. Each time, Promise Heights led crisis response for the school community, and Douglas Memorial Community Church (located across the street from Renaissance) provided safe haven for community meetings, food distribution, and mental health supports for families. Staff continued their training in and use of restorative practices, which give students the opportunity to learn how to constructively express themselves. Consequently, students would come to school and ask for "restorative circles" through which staff would guide resolution of conflicts that happened outside of school hours.
Seeds of Promise male mentors took on more male students for one-on-one and group mentoring. The Community School Coordinator assisted students with issues around housing, food insecurity, college/career applications, and health services referrals. All of this resulted in an 82 percent graduation rate at Renaissance Academy, the highest in school history and higher than city schools' average.
In their role as lead agency for the community school strategy at Renaissance Academy, Promise Heights has provided ample financial and staff support since the 2014-2015 school year. The organization secured over $1,225,000 from federal, state and local funders to create after-school programming, summer bridge programming, a full-time licensed clinical social worker position to facilitate community school supports, additional mentoring supports, on-site coaching assistance for restorative practices, additional home visiting capacity for students with low attendance, a door monitor position, and a partnership with Safe Streets for school-based assistance in the 2017-2018 school year. The Baltimore City Health Department is also investing heavily in Renaissance Academy through federal grants focusing on youth mental health and violence prevention. Should the school be closed, students would lose access to these critical programs and supports.
City schools officials point out, appropriately, that the current Renaissance Academy program space is unsuitable for students, as so many educational spaces are in Baltimore. The program sits on the third floor of the Booker T. Washington Middle School for the Arts building, and there are legitimate concerns about the administration's ability to monitor all the internal stairwells and external doors. Partners have been asking for over two years that new space be found that is more conducive to the academic and trauma work our students must do each day. City schools gave partners five weeks to find new space for the school, space which we believe exists within city schools or through other partnerships and which could be arranged if the school were given more time.
City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises and the Baltimore City School Board should join the long list of partners who are working to support students in one of the neediest neighborhoods in our city. These students carry the burden of our city's weaknesses: trauma from community violence, poverty, mental and behavioral health issues, and a failing education system. Numerous partners and stakeholders are working hard to provide needed resources and support to the school. We strongly urge Ms. Santelises to take more time to learn about all the great work being done by partners and staff that previously resulted in a decision to retain Renaissance Academy and preserve the lifesaving relationships that its students have and desperately need to realize their futures. We hope she can be the CEO to finally fully invest in the students of Renaissance Academy.
Eric T. Costello (firstname.lastname@example.org) represents the 11th District on the Baltimore City Council. Bronwyn Mayden is assistant dean of the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Social Work and executive director of Promise Heights.Contributing to this article are: Dels. Frank M. Conaway Jr., Antonio L. Hayes and Barbara A. Robinson from the 40th legislative district; Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., senior pastor at Union Baptist Church; and Rev. S. Todd Yeary, senior pastor at Douglas Memorial Community Church.