Supporters turn out for Western

Rumor of possible merger brings many to public meeting on city school closings

Baltimore & Region


More than 1,000 people packed a forum on school closures at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute last night, hundreds of them Western High School students and alumnae fighting to save their alma mater.

It remains unclear, however, whether the existence of Western, the nation's oldest public girls school, is at risk.

The Baltimore school board voted this month to reduce the school system's operating space by 2.7 million square feet over the next three years, a move that will require closing schools.

The move was in response to declining enrollment, deteriorating buildings and state demands to operate more efficiently.

Within days of the board vote, a rumor began to spread that Western would be merged with Poly. Two of the highest-performing schools in the city, Western and Poly are housed in adjacent, deteriorating buildings with space for many more students than are enrolled.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in yesterday's editions about school closings, Bill Bleich, an English teacher at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, was misidentified.

School system officials will not go so far as to say the schools will be left as is. But they insist that a list of schools to be closed or merged does not exist, and they hinted that a Poly-Western merger is highly unlikely.

"For God's sake, Poly is the top high school in the state of Maryland," said Eric Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer. "Western's got a 100 percent college acceptance rate."

But assurances from administrators did little to ease the anxiety in the crowd last night. Phil Bleich, a Poly English teacher who says the school system should fill its extra space by reducing class sizes, yelled out as an administrator was speaking: "You want us to help cut our own throats."

The purpose of the forum was to discuss the fate of northern city schools, including Western and Poly. The forum was one of four occurring simultaneously around the city to discuss which schools should be closed, which schools should be renovated and where to build schools. Four more public forums are scheduled in other areas of the city tonight.

A second set of forums will be held Dec. 7 and Dec. 8.

In the Poly cafeteria last night, the school system had set up 50 tables for 10 people each to hold small group discussions and fill out questionnaires. But there were hundreds more people than the tables could accommodate, and many lingered in the back, some without questionnaires, unable to hear what was happening.

One was 18-year-old Andrea Jackson, a recent Poly graduate. "It is frustrating," she said. "I came all the way from College Park."

Donna Blackwell-Cooke, a 1984 Western graduate seated next to Jackson on a bench in the back of the cafeteria, added, "This is a little ridiculous. They asked us to come out. We can't hear anything."

The school system posted on an overhead projector the Internet address where people could fill out the questionnaire.

Western alumnae - many wearing the school colors of red and black - emphasized the importance of preserving the school as a separate entity. Merging with Poly or any other school, they said, would require Western to admit boys for the first time in its 161-year history.

The women handed out brochures, printed on red-glitter paper, listing the accomplishments of Western alumnae.

Brian Morris, chairman of the city school board, said the rumor of a merger began when a consultant writing a report on school buildings accidentally listed Poly and Western as one school because they share a campus.

Even if people came to the forum because of rumors, Morris said, "this is a great day for the city of Baltimore. Any time we can get this many people out to talk about our children, it's a positive."

The school board is expected to vote in April on which schools to close.

To develop a list of recommendations, the school system hired a consulting firm for nearly $1 million to help community committees to determine the space needs of their neighborhood schools and how schools should be configured to meet modern academic needs.

The committees' recommendations are expected to incorporate the public input generated at the forums.

The Baltimore school system operates 171 schools with 18 million square feet of space, enough for 126,000 students. Enrollment this year is 86,300 and is expected to continue to drop.

The system has about 5.7 million excess square feet - more than the entire Frederick County school system, according to state figures. Even with the 2.7-million- square-foot cut approved by the board, the system will still have 3 million square feet of excess space.

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