Board votes to close schools

Pair of complexes and an elementary to shut down this summer

March 29, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

A divided Baltimore school board voted last night to shutter the Southwestern and Dr. Samuel L. Banks high school complexes and Elmer A. Henderson Elementary School this summer, the first among 16 school building closures planned over the next two years.

The votes came as the chairman of the committee that made the closure recommendations changed course and pleaded with the school board not to move Banks High to the campus of Thurgood Marshall Middle and High Schools. The chairman, Michael Carter, told the board that by voting for the proposal, "you truly don't have the best interest of my children at stake."

The board also approved a 10-year, $2.7 billion plan that calls for building 27 schools and shifting thousands of children from middle schools to buildings housing prekindergarten though eighth grade. That plan lists which school buildings would close in the coming years, though officials emphasized that none of those decisions is final.

In addition, the board voted to close Harlem Park Middle School by 2008 but to convert neighboring Harlem Park Elementary to a combined elementary-middle school this summer.

School officials said they held 85 public meetings over the past few months, with more than 10,000 people participating. Chief Operating Officer Eric Letsinger said he is optimistic about the plan, but he acknowledged, "This has been a difficult year and a difficult process for all of us."

Next week, the board is scheduled to vote whether to close Highlandtown Middle School this summer and Dr. Roland N. Patterson Academy, either this summer or in two years. Taken together, this year's moves could affect more than 5,300 students.

Last night's votes came despite opposition from board member George M. VanHook Sr., who wanted assurances that children displaced by the moves would be better off in their new settings. Board members Diane Bell McKoy and James Campbell also opposed moving Banks to Thurgood Marshall. Campbell opposed the Southwestern closure, too.

The school board decided last fall to reduce the system's operating space by 15 percent, or 2.7 million square feet, over three years in response to declining enrollment and deteriorating building conditions. The long-term plan approved last night would accomplish that goal.

The state has threatened to cut off the city's school construction money if the system does not start operating more efficiently. The city schools have room for 125,000 students, but 85,000 students are enrolled.

The Algebra Project, a student-led tutoring group, has led several protests in recent weeks, including a three-day school walkout, and gathered signatures from several politicians supporting the call for a moratorium on school closings. They protested during last night's meeting, too.

The school board has tried to soften the blow to the community by making plans for new schools, in cases where existing buildings are beyond repair, and major renovations. The total price of $2.7 billion for construction and renovation is widely considered to be unrealistic, but system officials are vowing to accomplish as many of the projects as they can.

Under the plans passed last night, Elmer A. Henderson will close entirely, with its pupils dispersed to surrounding elementary schools. The schools in the Southwestern and Banks complexes will move to other locations when their buildings are shut down.

The Southwestern complex houses four small high schools, while the Banks complex houses two. The fiercest community opposition in recent weeks has been over moving Banks students to the Thurgood Marshall complex, which has experienced substantial violence in recent years, including a shooting at Thurgood Marshall High.

Cheryl Glenn, chairwoman of the Frankford Improvement Association in the Thurgood Marshall neighborhood, told the board last night, "We find it unconscionable that our school system would develop a plan that will result in warehousing our children."

In general, much of the community opposition to the school closings has centered on potential gang violence stemming from putting students from different neighborhoods in the same school buildings.

Among the other details of the moves:

The Academy for College and Career Exploration in the Banks complex will move to the building that now houses Robert Poole Middle School. Poole would cease to exist in 2008, operating alongside ACCE until then.

The original Southwestern High School, No. 412, will move to extra space in the Benjamin Franklin Junior High School building until its current freshmen graduate in 2009, at which point Southwestern will cease to exist.

The Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy will move from the Southwestern complex to the building now occupied by Francis M. Wood Alternative High. Francis M. Wood will move to extra space in the building occupied by the alternative school Harbor City West.

The Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts will move from Southwestern to extra space in the Calverton Middle School building.

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