On the front steps at Lexington Terrace Elementary-Middle School, Principal Patricia Dennis waits and watches for the children who aren't going to come.
How many desks will be empty today? How many lunches should be cooked? Where are her "bright-eyed babies"? Day by day, amid mounting anxiety and increasing frustration, she and her teachers no longer know.
As the Housing Authority of Baltimore City uproots the close-knit extended families of the Lexington Terrace public housing complex so that it can be torn down in July, the brick school is becoming a ghost anchor of a ghost neighborhood.
The end is inevitable, Ms. Dennis said last week. Come the end of the school year in June, the deadline for families to move out, the West Baltimore school will close. There will be only 28 students left on the roll book when the Lexington Terrace neighborhood finally is deserted, "so there is no reason to have a school," she said.
"Your head can comprehend all of that, but your heart takes a little time," she said.
For the adults and the children, this academic year has been marred by unanswered questions, midyear transfers, disrupted learning and severed support systems.
Since September, the enrollment has fallen to 274 from 404, Ms. Dennis said. At first, a trickle of families left. By January, it had become a river.
Lexington Terrace includes pre-kindergarten through seventh grade. This week, 30 third-graders and 15 fifth-graders remained at the school.
A new crisis has arisen this week: The Housing Authority has to displace at least 52 families by Monday because of power failures at buildings in the complex around West Saratoga Street. An undetermined number of families with school-age students will leave the neighborhood, an agency spokesman said. Teachers at Lexington Terrace said many of their remaining students are affected.
"Really, we don't have much time," said Florise A. White, whose entire morning kindergarten class fit around one table last week in her brightly colored room. Nine of the 20 children who enrolled in September remain. "It seems like they could go on and allow them to stay to the end of the school year," Ms. White said.
City officials have anticipated the closing of the Lexington Terrace school for some time, but the school board won't vote to make it official until a public meeting Thursday.
Greater cooperation is needed among city agencies so that the timing of any future demolitions of housing projects won't be so disruptive to schools, said Gary Thrift, the area assistant superintendent who oversees schools in that neighborhood.
"We certainly were taken by surprise by the speed with which this project is moving forward," Dr. Thrift said. He was relieved that the original March date for the Lexington Terrace implosion was postponed to July, a decision Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III made to reduce disruption at the school.
"It would be better as we look at future projects if the city could secure the funding in advance, which would allow us to relocate everyone during the summer months, when it's less disruptive to the educational process," Dr. Thrift said.
"We had not planned to empty the buildings out as fast as they are emptying out now," Mr. Henson said.
Many families want to leave before the June 20 deadline and choose new homes outside the school zone because of the discomfort of remaining, he said.
The effects ripple beyond the regular classrooms. The building also houses a regional alternative center for troubled students .. from six area schools and a Head Start center serving about 35 children. Both programs need new homes.
More pressing, parents and others say, is the effect on all of the children in the school throughout this school year's disruptions.
"I don't know where we're going," Sh'keena Richards, 12, president of the student body, said as she let longtime friend and neighbor Bianca Watkins, 13, twist her long braids playfully. The families of both girls must move from Saratoga Street buildings.
"We still have the telephone," Bianca said, peeking at her friend then looking away. Where they will live and attend school remained unresolved last week.
The girls have been playmates since they were toddlers and classmates since kindergarten. Together, they were cheerleading champions, band members and baseball teammates.
They were supposed to be at Lexington Terrace another year. Before the demolition of the housing complex was decided on, the plan was to add an eighth grade.
Sh'keena was elected at midyear. Her predecessor, Latoya Linton, 13, was transferred from the school by her mother, who thought another school might meet her daughter's academic needs better under the circumstances, .
'A toll on the children'
And so the year has gone for all of the students and their families, one departure and disruption after another. Unlike adults, the children wear the stress on their sleeves, teachers say.