Schools brace for 9 closings

Consolidation has some saddened, others busy planning

March 15, 2001|By Erika Niedowski and Liz Bowie | Erika Niedowski and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Deciding to shut the doors at nine Baltimore schools is one thing. Getting it done is quite another, when it involves moving 2,400 displaced students to 18 other schools.

Yesterday, school officials began tending to a host of questions, ranging from how to console a fourth-grader fearful of change to how to clear drug dealers from the routes children will take to their new schools.

"The hard work now begins," said school board Chairman J. Tyson Tildon.

Faced with shrinking enrollment and underused buildings, the nine-member board voted Tuesday to close seven schools in June at a savings of $1.3 million initially and an additional $2 million in subsequent years. Two more schools will close next year and in 2003. The fate of three others will be decided in the spring of next year.

Never has the district tried to close so many schools at once. For months, everyone from principals to maintenance workers has been involved in planning to ensure a smooth transition.

Irma Johnson, principal of Dallas F. Nicholas Elementary, worries about accommodating the new pupils from Mildred Monroe.

In a few weeks, her staff will start reviewing student records to identify pupils who will have to attend summer school, be held back or join new classmates in the fall. In May, she will interview teachers from Monroe and hire those she believes will fit best. She will hold an orientation in August for Monroe parents and students who want to tour their new building.

She wonders whether she will get enough teachers to prevent class sizes from rising from 20 to 25 in the early grades and how the new teachers will adjust to her style of doing things.

Perhaps the most sensitive issue is how to make the pupils from these two disparate neighborhoods feel comfortable with each other. The parents at Dallas Nicholas feel uneasy about having children from the less-stable Greenmount West community join their school. And parents from Greenmount West worry about how their children will fare on the other side of North Avenue.

Johnson hopes the gap will be bridged by intimate and honest discussion. She wants parents who spend a lot of time in her school to sit down - out of the earshot of teachers and staff - and talk with parents from Greenmount West.

As Johnson pondered the human aspect of the transition, the staff of the school system's facilities department analyzed such logistics as how high the walls should be built at Dallas Nicholas to create classrooms in the 1970s-era open space school and whether the ventilation system will work with walls that go to the ceiling or whether the school will have to settle for partitions?

Leonard Hamm, the head of schools security, plans to ask city police to help clear prostitutes and drug dealers from the route students will take to their new schools.

At Charles Carroll of Carrollton, another school scheduled to close, staff members and pupils weren't planning as much as wondering what the future will bring.

Principal Everett Garnett doesn't know where he will end up or whether he will remain in the city school system.

A social worker, a teacher and a parent wondered the same.

"The staff has been upset all day long," said Kisha Noel, a teacher's assistant and the mother of four children who attend Charles Carroll. "I am dead set against them going to City Springs," she said, adding that she might move from the neighborhood to a school district she likes better.

Her 9-year-old son, Patrick, was in tears after the school board vote. "I had to comfort him and say we are going to fight to keep the school open," Noel said, although she seemed resigned to the closing.

The schools' chief executive officer, Carmen V. Russo, wants to reward families who are losing their neighborhood schools by giving their new schools money from the savings that will result from the closings. The money might improve a library, buy more computers or fund a music class.

Betty Morgan, chief academic officer, said the long-term savings from the school closings will "far eclipse" what the system will spend to move staff members, pupils and supplies, and prepare the buildings.

The system estimates it also will have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to provide corner-to-corner bus service for some displaced students.

But once the logistics are dealt with, Morgan said, the result should be a more efficient system.

School social worker Ivy Oidick was thinking about how to stress the importance of fighting for what matters. Oidick, who works at Charles Carroll, has been counseling a group of eighth-grade girls who are angry about the closing of the school. They wished their parents had fought harder to save it.

Oidick doesn't want the girls to become embittered.

"I hope the end result is that they feel empowered by that discussion," she said.

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