City school to go private

Villa Maria set to operate elementary amid community uproar


The Baltimore school system is preparing to turn control of an alternative school over to a private provider, amid an uproar from community members who say school officials are making decisions secretly and without considering their opinions.

Staff members and parents at the Elementary Alternative School, in the building of the former Dr. Lillie M. Jackson Elementary, have received conflicting messages from officials for months about the future of the program. As recently as this week, they believed the school would be sharing space with another run by a private provider. But yesterday, a school system spokeswoman said the plan is for the provider, Villa Maria School, to manage the entire building.

"They just don't pay attention to the community," said Phyllis Green, president of the Alliance of Rosemont Community Organizations, an umbrella group. Regarding the coming changes in the Jackson building, which is on Ashburton Street in West Baltimore, Green said, "The community really doesn't want that, but it's a done deal."

The school board still needs to sign off on leasing the building to Villa Maria, a Catholic Charities program for students whose disabilities are so severe that they cannot be served by regular public schools. At that point, the 12 children remaining at Elementary Alternative School will become students of Villa Maria, and the alternative school's 10 teachers might be reassigned, said school system spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt.

Pyatt denied assertions that the community had not been involved in the decision. But at a meeting at the school last week, a system official acknowledged that the community should have been informed of the changes sooner.

"I do agree with you," said Thomas J. Stosur, the system's director of facility planning, in a room of a few dozen angry staff members and area residents. "This is happening much later than we wanted it to. ... I'll be the first to admit we did not do the top job of communicating and getting everybody to the table. That's a legitimate complaint."

City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, whose district includes the school, said the community was "not made a part of the process."

"That's been one of the problems that's gotten community members so upset," Conaway said. "Sometimes it's not what you do, but the way you do it."

As a parent, Conaway said, "I certainly would not like to find out midsummer that my child may be in a different program or the program is not going to be available. I empathize with the staff members who found out very late that they were going to be displaced."

The Elementary Alternative School, also known as School No. 288, serves children with emotional and discipline problems, often after they have been expelled from regular schools. It evolved from the former Dr. Lillie M. Jackson Elementary, a school for the developmentally disabled that was phased out a few years ago.

The Jackson building has room for 90 children. By all estimates, the Elementary Alternative School is not using nearly all that space. Pyatt said its enrollment fluctuates between 10 and 30. Villa Maria, which is run by Catholic Charities, wants to serve about 40 children in the Jackson building.

Community members say they have been scrambling to build up the alternative school, while the school system has taken steps to get rid of it. In recent months, the system has repeatedly changed its plans.

According to Conaway and activists in the area, the community learned this spring that the alternative school would have to share space with Villa Maria. Then this summer, teachers received transfer notices saying the system planned to shut the alternative school.

Pyatt said the notices were sent prematurely by the school's principal, but they are not official until they come from the Human Resources Department. She said the department has not sent any transfer notices, but it might after the lease with Villa Maria is signed.

Meanwhile, the city school system is under pressure from the state to make more efficient use of its space. Citywide, the system had space last school year for 125,000 students, but 85,000 were enrolled. The school board has committed to reducing its operating space by 15 percent over three years.

In March, the board voted on a preliminary list of buildings to close to meet that goal, and the Jackson facility was on it. That means that the Elementary Alternative School would have to shut down or move elsewhere by 2008.

Villa Maria, however, could continue to operate in the building if it leased the space from city government, which would assume control of the facility if the school system no longer needed it.

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