Parents protest school merger

K-12 site may see gang conflict, expose pupils to violence, critics say

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

Parents of children at Lafayette Elementary and Calverton Middle schools in West Baltimore are pleading with city school system officials not to send a high school to operate in their building, saying the move would trigger a gang conflict and expose young children to unnecessary violence.

The Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts is scheduled to move to the Lafayette/Calverton building when the Southwestern High School complex, where it is currently located, closes this summer. The school system is closing and consolidating several schools in response to declining enrollment, deteriorating building conditions and state demands to operate more efficiently.

The school board approved moving Augusta Fells Savage in late March. Though school officials held a series of meetings before the vote, parents and community activists say they didn't know about the proposal and that their input wasn't considered.

Dozens of people turned out at a school board meeting last week, demanding that the board reconsider. Parents have recruited several politicians to support their cause, including Del. Salima S. Marriott and City Councilwoman Agnes Welch, who both spoke at the board meeting, and U.S. Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume.

"Our entire delegation to Annapolis supports them," Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, said at the meeting. "This is a decision that has been made that has no support in the community where the school is located, or by your elected officials."

Other speakers at the meeting said some Calverton pupils belong to the Bloods gang, while some Southwestern students belong to the rival Crips. They said Calverton, which last year was labeled a "persistently dangerous" school by the state, has made great strides this year under the leadership of a new principal, and they don't want to see that progress reverse.

Chanel Howard, a Calverton eighth-grader, told the board that Augusta Fells Savage students will have to travel through four gang territories to get to the school.

Over the winter, as the school board was deciding which schools to close, parents, students, teachers and community activists around the city expressed concerns about gang conflicts when schools merge. In Northeast Baltimore, for example, residents are worried about Samuel L. Banks High School moving to the Thurgood Marshall middle and high school complex.

In the case of Augusta Fells Savage, the difference is that a high school would be moving to the same campus as an elementary school, putting children from kindergarten through 12th grade under one roof. Parents say they fear that gangs will begin recruiting children when they are still in elementary school. They also worry about increased pregnancy rates when middle school girls are in the same building as high school boys.

"We're talking 4-year-olds up to 21-year-old kids in one building. That's ludicrous," Carol Brockington, the Lafayette PTA president, said at the board meeting. The mother of a 5-year-old, Brockington challenged school board members: "Put your children there, and then I'll send mine."

School board Chairman Brian D. Morris assured Brockington and others that safety was a paramount consideration when the board made its decisions about school relocations. Schools police Chief Antonio Williams told the audience at the board meeting, "There's a lot of hysteria out there right now about gangs."

Morris urged the public not to judge the high school students. "It is increasingly troubling for me when we as a community are prepared to say, primarily about black children ... `Not in my backyard. I don't want those kids in my neighborhood.'"

He said he wants to have a "dialogue" with the Lafayette and Calverton community, but he wouldn't guarantee that the outcome will be different. System officials have arranged to hold an open meeting at the school at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Parents say they are also concerned that the Lafayette/Calverton building will become overcrowded, and Calverton won't have the space to offer the increased social services the system is planning for its middle schools.

But system officials say the building will still have excess capacity. Augusta Fells Savage is expecting an enrollment of 650 next school year, which would increase the number of students there from 1,010 to 1,660, according to system figures. The building has a capacity for 1,791.

If Augusta Fells Savage must move into the Calverton building, Brockington and other Lafayette parents urged the board to move the elementary school to a building across the street that houses a tiny charter school, Empowerment Academy.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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