Downsizing schools

October 17, 2005

Baltimore's schools are losing students and, as a consequence, will now be losing space. State officials have been pressing city school managers to operate their space more efficiently, including closing some schools. Two weeks ago, the city's school commissioners agreed to eliminate more than 2 million square feet of space over three years. Since Baltimore's school buildings are the oldest in the state and many have not been managed, maintained or financed well over the years, this is a great opportunity to bring more coherence and rationality to the system's physical plant. But plans for the buildings must be aligned with long-term academic goals.

Only about 86,400 students are enrolled in city schools this year, while the buildings can accommodate 126,000. But space can't be reduced based on an exact match with the student population. The major high school reform effort, for example, relies on breaking up large, overcrowded high schools into smaller, specialized learning academies where fewer students might occupy the same amount of space, but with much better academic results because they can receive more individual attention. Efforts to create community schools that bring needed social services and after-school programs to students and adults in a neighborhood or to expand academic offerings in areas such as technology and the arts might also require more space.

Figuring out the best ways to use or eliminate space is a job that should not be left entirely to school officials. To that end, a nationally known consulting firm that specializes in school facility planning is working with eight community planning committees. It is critical that parents, neighbors and other community representatives turn out for a series of public forums -- the first set to be held this Wednesday and Thursday evenings -- to start working on proposals to close, renovate or reorganize neighborhood schools. Another set of public meetings is scheduled for early December.

The recommendations of local residents will be incorporated by the planning committees into a larger facilities proposal that the school board will vote on next spring. In the meantime, there should be no unilateral decisions to close or consolidate schools. Making sure that the school system's physical space enhances the academic objectives is a broad, community-wide responsibility.

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