Don't shut down Banneker Blake Academy

On Nov. 13, the Baltimore school board voted to close Banneker Blake Academy, a charter middle school for boys (“Founder of Banneker Blake Academy in Baltimore vows appeal of school’s closure,” Nov. 20). Hundreds of parents, teachers and community activists have expressed outrage at this decision. They have organized protests and public demonstrations to keep the school open. We share their alarm and believe the closure of Banneker Blake raises serious questions about the management of city schools.

Young black men in Baltimore face many obstacles to success. In a city with unprecedented levels of violent crime, extreme poverty and high rates of addiction, the school system plays a vital role in preparing our boys for a better future. Banneker Blake has established a unique learning environment for disadvantaged students. With an extended school year that begins in July and continues through the end of June and an extended day that allows children to participate in enrichment activities until 4:30 p.m., the school provides students with a singular combination of individual support and scholastic rigor.

The academic performance of Banneker Blake has never been in doubt. Since its founding in 2015, the school has ranked higher than five out of six public schools in academic advancement, according to city records. Many of the students who arrive at Banneker Blake have been let down by other schools. All of the incoming sixth-graders last year tested below grade-level proficiency in both reading and math. After seven months, these students exceeded the citywide goal for improvement in language arts by 150 percent and surpassed the target for mathematics growth by 300 percent. The administrator of public schools in Baltimore, Sonja Santelises, publicly acknowledges the academic success at Banneker Blake. At the same time, her administration has recommended closing the school for a variety of inconsistent and contradictory reasons.

Last fall, the school board informed Banneker Blake that it would be closed unless its leaders placed three months of operational costs in reserve. This is not a requirement of the charter system and the wisdom of doing so is highly questionable. Like all charter schools, Banneker Blake is funded by the city on a per-pupil basis. The demand to set aside three months of funding meant diverting resources that were intended for this year’s students. Many other charter schools in the city supplement their funding with private resources. Some also receive discounts from the city to lease municipal buildings for as little as $1 per year. The leaders at Banneker Blake believe that a charter should rely on the same level of funding available to a typical public school. They conduct little private fundraising and pay the full cost to lease a building from the city for $376,000 a year. Providing students with an extended-day program of enrichment activities through an extended school year, without private donations or a discount on the school facility, requires extraordinary fiscal discipline. When officials insisted that the school withhold three months of funding from student services, Banneker Blake complied with the demand, despite serious reservations about the utility of doing so.

Almost immediately, administrators informed the school of a new threat to its existence: the building it leases on Winston Avenue would no longer be available in the coming school year. Administrators provided a short window of time for Banneker Blake to obtain a new location, threatening to revoke its charter if the school could not locate those grounds quickly. Leaders at Banneker Blake made arrangements to occupy a historic building owned by the Archdiocese of Baltimore and they commissioned an architectural firm to design a renovation of the facility.

The school system then raised questions about the quality of service that Banneker Blake provides to students with special needs. It’s worth noting that Banneker Blake serves many more special-needs children than the city average. These students currently comprise more than a quarter of the student body. Leaders at Banneker Blake have been happy to accept this high proportion of challenging students. They believe the purpose of a charter school is to find solutions for children who struggle in the public system. They acknowledge that, in the school’s second year of operation, the resources they allocated for special-need services fell short of goals. Since then, however, the school has met or exceeded the requirements for special-needs children, and it has filed all of the appropriate documentation of compliance with the school system. The critique of Banneker Blake’s special-needs program today is not a reflection on the school itself but on the failure of administrators and the school board to review current data.

We find it troubling that the decision to close Banneker Blake Academy was based on such arbitrary demands and inaccurate claims. In addition to the school’s exceptional academic record, any visitor to its premises on a given day would instantly recognize the school’s success. Students arrive each morning wearing blazers, ties and dress shoes. They refer to one another as “scholars,” proceed through hallways with respect and discipline and address their teachers as “sir” and “ma’am.” Closing Banneker Blake will return these young men to a system that has often failed them, in which the median academic performance is vastly inferior to the program they enjoy at Banneker Blake. This would represent a profound failure by school administrators and the school board — not only to recognize a program that is doing exceptional work but to grasp the urgent necessity of providing black boys in Baltimore with the high-quality education they deserve.

We demand that the school board reverse the decision to close Banneker Blake Academy, so that our boys will grow into men who can realize their potential and achieve their dreams for the future.

Sen. Jill Carter, Carl Stokes, Del. Talmadge Branch, David Miller, Richard Rowe, Bishop James L. Carter, Marc Steiner, and Wil Hylton, Baltimore

The writers are, respectively, a state senator representing District 41, the co-founder of Banneker Blake, a member of the House of Delegates representing District 45, CEO and founder of Dare to Be King, a Campaign for Black Male Achievement fellow, pastor of Ark Church in Baltimore, president of the Center for Emerging Media, and a BBA board member.

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