Board weighs closing school

Shutting Lake Clifton High would create ripple effect at other east-side sites

March 16, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials are considering shutting one of the city's largest and most troubled high schools and dispersing its 2,300 students to other facilities this fall - a decision that would ripple down through the grades in the city's east-side schools.

The proposal to close Lake Clifton-Eastern High School in Northeast Baltimore was one of three floated at a board meeting yesterday as a way to break up a school that was considered to be too big and too chaotic. The school has a history of discipline problems, high dropout rates and low attendance.

For several months, school officials had thought about physically dividing the school in two, as they did at Northern High School last year.

But the idea to empty the school was conceived Thursday. Board member Colene Daniel said she and school system staff spent Friday touring buildings and trying to determine which middle and elementary school pupils would have to move to accommodate the displaced Lake Clifton students.

The proposal was so fresh that it has not been written down yet for the board, which requested the details in writing by April 1.

Daniel and Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo stressed that they were considering the idea as a way to use the system's scarce dollars more efficiently.

Instead of spending $8 million to $10 million turning a "dilapidated" building into two schools, Daniels said, the system may decide it is more cost-effective to renovate other buildings that can house the Lake Clifton students.

Lake Clifton, lauded as one of the largest and most innovative high schools on the East Coast when it was built in the 1970s, has had a number of mechanical and roofing problems this winter.

Russo said she has asked a structural engineer and a mechanical engineer to assess the building. Those reports are expected by March 25, the date of the next regular board meeting.

The question has become whether the school system should spend the $8 million to divide the school when the building itself soon may need tens of millions of dollars in repairs, said Chief Operating Officer Mark Smolarz.

While schools were closed the week of last month's record snowstorm, Smolarz said, a hole in the piping in the steam-heating system caused an explosion that damaged ceiling tiles in one wing of the building.

Lake Clifton remained closed two additional days while the ceiling tiles were replaced. In addition, the school was built on top of a lake that had been filled in, and school officials have said the building seems to be slowly sinking each year.

Other options, Russo said, would be to renovate half of Lake Clifton or to build a new school behind the existing one over three years at the cost of about $35 million.

"What we are talking about is moving children to smaller, more rigorous learning environments," Russo said.

The school board will schedule a public hearing on the options in the next several weeks before taking a vote on whether to close the school. If the board decided to shut "the Lake," as many students call the school, here is where school officials are now proposing to send students:

Of the 2,300 students, about 300 would go to academies for finance, law and business at other high schools in the city and another 300 ninth- and 10th-graders would be sent to one wing of Thurgood Marshall Middle School to start what would become a regular city high school. That would leave 1,700 students to be divided between two school buildings - Fairmont Harford High School and Lombard Middle School.

Fairmont Harford High School is a recently renovated alternative school for 350 students who have had behavior problems or difficulty succeeding in a regular-zoned high school. Those students would be moved to another school - yet to be determined - and 850 Lake Clifton students would move across Harford Road to the school.

Lombard Middle School has 700 pupils who come from City Springs, Bernard Harris and Harford Heights elementaries.

Officials are proposing to turn City Springs and Harford Heights into pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade schools. City Springs has the space to absorb the middle-schoolers. Harford Heights would have to empty half the school, shifting pupils to other elementary schools on the east side.

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