Consolidation plan shortchanges Baltimore students

October 14, 2005|By JAY GILLEN

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the Maryland State Board of Education want Baltimore to consolidate underenrolled public schools in order to abandon half-empty buildings and save millions of dollars annually in maintenance and utility costs.

This is bad policy.

The city should instead plan to lower class sizes and rebuild programs in the arts and technology, thereby attracting back to school the students who drop out and the families who flee by the thousands.

Of course, these steps cost money, but the city could easily afford them if the state would finally comply with a Baltimore Circuit Court order dating to 2000 to pay the city schools $200 million more each year.

Three important factors are left out of the state board's insistence on consolidation.

First, class size affects the number of classrooms the city needs. Baltimore's illegally underfunded school system has acquiesced in increasing class sizes as a cost-saving measure despite clear research that smaller classes help students at all grade levels.

Critics argue that small classes don't matter, but Howard County - one of the state's highest-performing districts - has an average class size of 23.5 students in high schools, 20.5 students in middle schools and 19 students in first and second grade for a very good reason: Students get more individual attention and learn more when classes are small.

Baltimore's middle and high school classes average 32 students. Some are much larger than that.

A cap of 24 students would place in service at least one additional classroom area for every three current classes of students, eliminating excess capacity in school buildings.

What's important for Howard County's children should be important for Baltimore's children, too.

Second, research shows that well-financed programs in art, music, dance, drama, media production and technology yield high academic returns in basic skills. Baltimore's children get far too little access to the arts only because they are poor. That's unjust. Correcting the problem will require skilled teachers and spaces in schools for dance studios, recording studios, band rooms, practice rooms, potters' wheels and kilns.

Finally, the state board claims the city must come to terms with its chronic population loss. But this is a simple error in cause and effect that would be marked wrong on any sixth-grade test: The schools are not expensive to maintain because there are fewer children enrolled. Rather, there are fewer children enrolled because the schools are falling apart and no one bothers to fix them.

Fix the schools, add the arts and lower class sizes, and many of the estimated 15,000 teenagers we call "dropouts" will return to school. Thousands of families going into debt to pay for private schools or a county address will return to the city's public system.

It's a question of investment. Public education is a right, but it doesn't turn a short-term profit. It is a far-sighted, idealistic, hopeful thing - just as is any large-scale private investment. The mayor, City Council and school board should resist school consolidation by supporting citizens' demands for serious investment in the city's children. Going along with the state's plan for disinvestment would only contribute to the city's death.

And we shouldn't need a hurricane to understand the race and class dynamics of this problem. School buildings are our levees, breached long ago. Anyone who can afford to get out of the public schools gets out, and that's why the buildings are half-empty. Those left behind are mostly poor and black, just like in New Orleans. It's not time to close schools; it's time to fulfill our duty to Baltimore's children.

Jay Gillen, a teacher in Baltimore schools for 17 years, facilitates the Baltimore Algebra Project. His children are enrolled in and are graduates of the city schools.

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