Students, who don't want schools closing until class sizes are reduced, begin three days of demonstrations against the city's cost-saving plan

Laying out their demands

March 02, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

Young bodies sprawled out across the cold sidewalk on West Baltimore Street yesterday. There were at least 400 of them in all, Baltimore public school students, lying still as if they were dead.

They hoped the officials across the street and safely inside at the Maryland State Department of Education would hear their cry:

"No education, no life."

It was Day 1 of a three-day student strike, protesting the impending closure of several Baltimore school buildings. Today, the students will be outside the city school system headquarters on North Avenue. Tomorrow's stop is City Hall.

Under the leadership of the Baltimore Algebra Project, the students are demanding that no schools close until the city school system reduces all class sizes to 20 students or fewer and provides all the art, music and other extras that kids in the suburbs take for granted. Such reforms, they say, would eliminate the extra space in the school system.

The city school system has space for 125,000 students, but just 85,000 are enrolled. State officials have threatened to withhold money for desperately needed school renovations if the city school system doesn't start operating more efficiently. They say the city schools are wasting millions of dollars a year on unused space.

That's one reality. Another is the run-down state of the schools that yesterday's protesters attend.

Wayne Washington, a junior at Heritage High School in the Lake Clifton High School complex, said he has 37 to 40 students in each of his classes. Learning anything, he said, is "real hard." He said class-size reduction would be impossible if the school system moves Hamilton Middle and Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High School into the Lake Clifton building as proposed because there wouldn't be any extra classrooms.

A group of girls from Thurgood Marshall High School described a school in chaos. They said they don't have adequate heat, drinking water, books or toilet paper. They said the school has mice and a serious roach problem, including in the cafeteria.

Sophomore Erica Taylor said teachers have to use their own money to buy paper to make photocopies. Sophomore Brittany Henriquez said teachers are often absent. Kandice Harrell, also a sophomore and the school's student government president, said security and supervision are so lax that kids can walk in and out of the building as they please.

So why, the girls asked, would the school system propose moving another school into their building?

A plan scheduled to be approved by the city school board March 28 would close five school buildings this summer, displacing more than 5,300 students. Under that plan, Dr. Samuel L. Banks High School would move into the Thurgood Marshall building.

"They're setting us up for failure," Henriquez said.

The Baltimore Algebra Project, a student-run tutoring group, worked since December to organize the protest, with members going on various radio stations appealing to their peers to walk out of class midmorning or skip school altogether to demonstrate.

The group has long been pushing for the state to comply with a 2000 ruling in a school funding case that said the city schools were being underfunded by about $200 million a year. That doesn't include the cost of upgrading shoddy school buildings: The city school system says it has $1 billion in maintenance needs, and it is proposing $2.7 billion in renovations and construction in a long-term plan for school buildings.

William Reinhard, a spokesman for the state education department, said state officials don't object to the students offering their views, but they are concerned about them missing so much class time.

"We just hope they're making up their schoolwork," Reinhard said. "We also wish they had a more comprehensive understanding of the facts in the school funding case. Baltimore schools receive the most funding by far of any system in the state. Funding comes from several sources, the state being one."

To meet the state's demands to operate more efficiently, the school system has committed to reducing its square footage by 15 percent over three years. Officials say that would still give them space for more than 100,000 students, and consequently plenty of space to reduce class size if they could find the money to hire the extra teachers.

Edie House, a spokeswoman for the city school system, referred questions about the protest to Simone Gray, the city's student school board member. Gray, a senior at Homeland Security Academy High School, said Baltimore's student government association did not support the students who organized the protest.

"We have tried our best to explain to them that schools have to be closed," she said, adding that she thinks the protesters will be taken less seriously for skipping school.

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, struck a more conciliatory tone.

"We certainly understand their frustration and their desire for better school facilities," he said. "That's exactly what this [process] is intended to do."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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