City schools unveil restructuring plans

Some sites would close, others become K-8


With enrollment declining, Baltimore education officials moved ahead last night with plans to close schools, pledging to shift more children from troubled middle schools to buildings housing kindergarten through eighth grade.

To help replace some of the system's most dilapidated buildings, Mayor Martin O'Malley will announce today a city investment of $75 million for school construction.

City school officials have set up a long process to decide which schools should shut down. In a series of four community meetings last night - and another four set for tonight - school system officials are releasing lists of options for which elementary and middle schools to close, which ones to renovate and where to build new ones.

The city schools' chief executive officer, Bonnie S. Copeland, emphasized that the lists were generated by community committees, using public input gathered earlier in the fall. But she said she is pleased that much of the community shares her vision to expand K-8 schools and scale back on traditional middle schools.

"When we look at our data for students in grades six, seven and eight," she said, "in the K-8 schools we see much better performance than we do in the traditional middle schools."

The city school board voted in October to reduce its operating space by 2.7 million square feet in response to deteriorating buildings, declining enrollment and state demands to operate more efficiently.

The community is scheduled to vote on the options, at the meetings and online, but several of the proposals released last night made clear what officials are seeking to do.

For example, every scenario involved closing Robert Poole, Highlandtown, Lombard, Canton and Southeast middle schools - schools with low test scores and high rates of violence. Highlandtown, Lombard and Canton are three of the six city schools designated "persistently dangerous" by the state, and Robert Poole and Southeast are on the state's watch list to become persistently dangerous if problems continue.

All options also involve closing troubled Thurgood Marshall High, the site of a shooting last year. A new building would be constructed for Thurgood Marshall Middle, which sits on the same campus and could convert to a K-8.

But with decisions largely being driven by building conditions and capacity, some high-performing schools could be in jeopardy. Thomas Johnson Elementary, which was highlighted last year in a report by the Maryland Public Policy Institute for its success educating impoverished children, would close under one scenario. Under others, it would convert to a K-8 school.

"To me, it's outrageous" that closing Thomas Johnson is even a possibility, said Terrell Bowman, whose two daughters attend the school. "I would think you'd want to continue something that works."

At the Commodore John Rogers Elementary meeting for southeastern schools last night, not all parents were excited to hear of plans to create more K-8 schools.

"I don't think they should mix seventh- and eighth-graders with the young kids," said Caleche Sanders, whose daughter attends kindergarten at John Ruhrah Elementary. "The older kids are bad examples. I think it should stay elementary school."

Still to be determined are the fates of most of the city's high schools. Options for them will be presented publicly next month, Copeland said.

The elementary and middle school plans will be available online for the public to vote on until Dec. 20. (Seven of the eight area proposals were released online last night, with the western one still being tweaked.) The community committees will use the feedback to develop their recommendations, with the school board making final decisions.

Groups, including the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Algebra Project, are demanding that no schools close until the system reduces all of its class sizes to 20 students or less. They say the average middle school class size in the city is 50 percent higher than at middle schools in Howard County.

System officials say they will still have plenty of extra space to reduce class sizes after the cuts they plan to make. "These aren't mutually exclusive processes," said school board Chairman Brian D. Morris. "I share the desire to dramatically decrease class sizes."

Though school officials are looking to reduce classroom space, many of the plans involve expensive renovations or construction - estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, far more than what's being proposed by the mayor.

In most cases, school construction and renovations rely more heavily on state dollars than city funds - and state officials have warned they will not keep funding projects in Baltimore if the system doesn't start operating more efficiently.

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