City schools plan revised

Officials say they took concerns about student safety to heart

more hearings are set

March 17, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

Reacting to public pressure, Baltimore school officials yesterday released substantial revisions to a plan that calls for closing five school buildings and displacing more than 5,300 students this summer.

The revisions come a week and a half before the school board is to vote on the proposal. Under a new plan, two more public hearings will be held over the next few weeks, and the board will vote March 28, as scheduled, on only part of the proposal. It will hold another meeting April 6 to vote on the rest of the plan.

The original proposal sparked emotional protests last week at three public hearings. Several speakers warned the school board to be mindful of gang conflicts that might arise from mixing students from different neighborhoods when schools are consolidated. Some also questioned the wisdom of housing a middle school and a high school on the same campus, an idea proposed for several locations that does not change in the revisions.

While school system officials expected communities to rally around their schools, they said they took to heart concerns about student safety being jeopardized by some of the moves and middle schools getting too large. "The impact of our decisions is huge," said school board Chairman Brian D. Morris. "We, as much as possible, want to be informed by the public voice."

But the proposed changes did little to appease community activists who felt the school system was moving too quickly to close schools in an attempt to meet state demands to operate more efficiently.

"The fact that this process changes on a daily basis indicates that we need more time to plan adequately," said Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore Council of PTAs.

Hamilton said the school board needed to be especially careful in making changes that affect students in the city's alternative schools, which serve an at-risk population. "You could be dealing with a fragile kid who's making an effort to finally get an education," he said. "If the move is not right for that kid, that kid may be lost forever."

The city schools have room for 125,000 students, but only 85,000 students are enrolled. The state Senate has proposed giving the city schools $41 million in construction money next school year (the House of Delegates has not yet provided a budget figure), but the state committee that oversees school construction has warned that funding is contingent on school closures.

David Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program, said the school board vote April 6 would "just barely" meet the state's timeline as it finalizes how to distribute next school year's money, but he said the delay to seek more community input "seems to be prudent."

"I think it makes a lot of sense what they're doing," he said.

Among the highlights of the revised proposal:

Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy would not close until 2008. It would no longer accept new sixth-grade classes, but current pupils would stay in their school until they finish eighth grade. This would prevent a large influx of pupils at Pimlico Middle.

The alternative high school Harbor City West would continue to operate, sharing space in its existing building with Francis M. Wood Alternative High. The Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, one of four schools in the Southwestern High School complex to be relocated, would move to the building now occupied by Francis M. Wood.

The Renaissance Academy, another school in the Southwestern complex, would move to Booker T. Washington Middle instead of West Baltimore Middle.

Some of the pupils displaced from closing Highlandtown Middle would move to Lombard Middle, resulting in fewer pupils moving to Canton Middle. Under the initial plan, Canton's enrollment would have doubled.

Under state regulations governing school closures and consolidations, the school board must vote on each element of the initial proposal in addition to the revised proposal.

The revisions do not address widespread public concern over moving Dr. Samuel L. Banks High School to the same complex as Thurgood Marshall Middle and Thurgood Marshall High, one of the city's toughest campuses.

"There's going to be so many territorial fights. It's absolutely ridiculous," said David Heiber, an assistant principal at Thurgood Marshall Middle who said he was resigning effective next month because of various frustrations. "Our students fight because they're from down the hill or up the hill. This is going to lend itself to a big problem."

M. Jane Sundius, director of the Education and Youth Development Program at the Open Society Institute, said she expected "it's going to be a very difficult year at Thurgood Marshall next year if all those changes happen."

The Open Society Institute is one of three major foundations in Baltimore that have urged the school system to slow the school closure process.

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