High school set to shrink

Two new sites will take half of Northern's students

Future neighbors voice concerns

May 16, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore school board has approved a plan to cut in half the size of one of the city's largest and most troublesome high schools by shifting enrollment to two new ones -- despite concerns from residents in other neighborhoods over the coming influx of students.

Over the next few years, the school system gradually will reduce the population of Northern High School from about 2,000 students to 1,000 students -- leaving about 500 each in career academies focusing on environmental science and business.

Many students who would have attended Northern instead will be assigned to new high schools, which are expected to enroll between 500 and 600 students each.

One will open for ninth- and 10th-graders this fall at the school system's Professional Development Center at 2500 E. Northern Parkway. School officials have yet to find a site for the other school, but say it will be in central Baltimore.

Residents who live near the Professional Development Center in the Hamilton area have said they fear that students will fight, loiter and destroy property around the new school -- problems that have troubled Northern, about half a mile away.

Breaking down Northern -- which some parents, students and teachers said was out of control earlier this year -- is part of a broader effort to reform the city's nine neighborhood high schools. To help make those schools smaller, more manageable and ultimately more rigorous, schools Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo has proposed creating as many as eight new "innovation," or specialized, high schools.

But the plan to house one of them at the Professional Development Center drew criticism from residents at a recent community forum and again at Tuesday's school board meeting.

Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat, told board members that she understands something needs to be done to address problems at Northern, which has had trouble with gang rivalries because it draws students from such a large area.

But she said residents worry about the impact that a new high school will have on them.

"The communities are very stable, but they could easily be destabilized," Doory said. "That's the concern we have. ... We don't want this neighborhood totally saturated with kids."

Mark Smolarz, the school system's chief operating officer, said the current Northern zone, which stretches from North Avenue to Hampden and to the city's eastern and northern boundaries, is by far the city's largest. That, he said, has been the root of many of the school's problems.

Creating two much-smaller schools within Northern -- with separate principals and separate staffs -- will "clearly change" the culture and the environment there, Russo said.

She and board members also pledged to work with the community to address quality-of-life concerns and to develop academic themes for the schools.

"We believe that we should not `top-down' decide the theme," she said.

School board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch said it has been "kind of scary" in public forums to hear from people who don't want city students in their neighborhoods.

Plans for small new high schools at Northwood Plaza in Northeast Baltimore and at downtown's Charles Plaza were scrapped after opposition from residents and business leaders.

"We have to find places to educate our children," Welch said. "These are our children."

Opposition to such schools, she said, raises a question: "If not here, where?"

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