City bids to recast middle schools

Russo wants to keep pupils nearer home

October 24, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore education officials are proposing a major reorganization that would keep more students in their neighborhood schools through eighth grade and reduce the size of many large middle schools.

Under the proposal presented to the school board last night, schools chief Carmen V. Russo would close six schools, build two new ones and expand 11 neighborhood elementary schools to serve students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

The three-year plan would affect a quarter of the city's school buildings.

It's expected to be popular among parents in several neighborhoods who have asked school officials for years to find alternatives to failing middle schools with enrollments as high as 1,200 students.

The plan, which requires school board approval, is intended to strengthen communities, helping to keep middle-class families from deserting the city when their children come of school age.

"It is very clear parents want their children closer to home," said Russo.

Mount Washington Elementary School parents documented last year that the school was losing a large number of its students to county public schools and private schools, in part because parents were not willing to send their children to Fallstaff Middle School.

The plan calls for the construction of a middle school addition to Mount Washington Elementary, to be completed by fall 2005.

The proposed changes are the second phase of the most far-reaching restructuring of the 175 city schools in the past several decades. With enrollments shrinking and maintenance problems growing in aging school buildings, officials decided last year to close seven elementary schools and reorganize to run the system more efficiently.

Chief Operating Officer Mark Smolarz said the school system expects to spend about $70 million a year over the next five years to renovate and restructure schools. Part of that money would pay for this plan.

While the reorganization doesn't address academics, Russo said the system is creating more combined elementary-middle schools because student achievement at those schools is higher than at middle schools.

Years ago, the popular educational theory was that students in grades six through eight, who are going through an awkward developmental period, should be separated from elementary school students.

What school systems did wrong, Russo believes, was to group more than 1,000 middle-schoolers in one building.

"A middle school of 1,200 [students] is just outrageous," Russo said. "The goal is to have every middle school under 1,000, and preferably 900."

The school system has 17 combined elementary-middle schools, and the plan would double that number. Keeping more students in their neighborhood elementary-middle would shrink the large numbers at some middle schools and allow the system to close three of them: Arnett J. Brown, Fallstaff and Thurgood Marshall, No. 171.

"We had this big hole with the middle school," said school board Vice Chairman C. William Struever, noting that parents of students at good elementary schools such as Arlington and Mount Washington have for years pulled their children out of the school system because they did not like the middle school.

"I think this creates an enormously exciting opportunity to think of schools as a tremendous resource and place of strength rather than a problem."

The school district would create a new alternative for middle school for Arlington students by combining it with Pimlico Middle School, which is across Northern Parkway from Arlington.

Federal Hill Elementary School would be turned into a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school with a rigorous math and science curriculum in the higher grades, preparing students for a new Digital Harbor High School expected to open next year in Federal Hill.

In Cherry Hill, Arundel Elementary, which had been slated to close this year, would be kept open under the plan. All four elementary schools in the area, Arundel, Cherry Hill, Carter G. Woodson and Patapsco, would be expanded to eighth grade.

One of the middle schools in the area would close and the building it occupies would be turned over to Southside Academy, a recently created small high school. That would give students from that area the option of staying in the community through high school or leaving to attend citywide schools.

"Nobody is being forced into a box. They are just being given choices," Russo said.

Two new pre-kindergarten through eighth grade schools would be built. The first, to be between Patterson Park and Johns Hopkins Hospital in southeast Baltimore, would include a citywide middle school focused on math and science. It would pull students from schools in the area that are now overcrowded: Paca, Highlandtown and Tench Tilghman elementary schools.

The second, to be called Lexington Terrace, has been on the drawing board for several years. It would be built in West Baltimore, near Martin Luther King Boulevard.

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