Panel urges school closures

Plan would shut about two-thirds of city middle schools

January 18, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN REPORTER

About two-thirds of Baltimore's middle schools would close in coming years under a proposal finalized last night by a city education committee.

Pimlico Middle would close this summer, followed in the next few years by Lombard, Hamilton, Canton, Thurgood Marshall and Southeast middle schools - and more are under discussion. At the same time, dozens of elementary schools would be expanded to serve students through eighth grade.

The committee also recommended that Thomas G. Hayes Elementary be closed this summer.

The recommendations, which grew out of a series of community meetings, will be presented to the school board Tuesday evening. The board will hold public hearings on all proposed closings during the week of Feb. 10, before voting on the recommendations Feb. 27.

It will be the second of three annual rounds of school closings in Baltimore. With space in city schools for 125,000 students but fewer than 85,000 enrolled, the board voted in fall 2005 to reduce the system's square footage by 15 percent over three years.

At the time, the state was threatening to cut off money for school renovation and construction if the city system did not start operating more efficiently. System officials say that by closing schools, they will have more money to spend on buildings that remain open.

They also say that reconfiguring school space is an opportunity to improve academic programs, namely by eliminating failing middle schools, some of which are labeled "persistently dangerous" by the state. System officials believe that young adolescents perform better, and that school environments are safer, when elementaries expand to serve the middle grades.

But in a study of Philadelphia schools released this month, Johns Hopkins University researchers concluded that expanding elementary schools to sixth, seventh and eighth grades does not improve academic performance. And next month, Baltimore school system officials are being called before a City Council committee to explain why sixth- through eighth-graders in extended elementary schools do not have adequate resources.

The city school board has closed Highlandtown Middle and started phasing out Harlem Park Middle, Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy and Robert Poole Middle. The committee is recommending closure of Winston and West Baltimore middle schools. Benjamin Franklin Junior High could be converted to a high school down the line.

If all of the proposed closures proceed, Baltimore would lose at least 13 of 21 traditional middle schools. In addition, Calverton Middle would merge with Lafayette Elementary, already in the same building, to become a combined elementary-middle school.

The closure process has been painful in many communities, as evidenced by a heated exchange at last night's meeting in which parents of students at Thurgood Marshall Middle School said they felt their voices were being ignored.

The committee eventually voted to phase out Thurgood Marshall, which would close when current sixth-graders finish eighth grade. Another option was to close this summer, but there was no good place to send the remaining students because of overcrowding, distance and territorial issues. A frequent concern heard over the past year is that by sending students to schools in different neighborhoods, gang conflicts will worsen.

"You can't keep disrespecting us and ignoring us like we are not even here," said "Grandma" Edna Lawrence, vice president of Thurgood Marshall's PTA. She challenged members of the committee to come out of their "lily white houses" and "stand in the boots of these parents" by sending their children through gang-infested areas to get to school.

While Thurgood Marshall parents said their voices were stifled, school system officials said that more than 600 people participated in the community meetings between October and December that led to the closure recommendations. Committees in eight regions of the city studied the schools in their areas to determine their space and renovation needs.

Each of the eight committees forwarded recommendations to the citywide committee, which voted on the plans last night. The citywide committee's recommendations are the ones that will be sent to the school board.

The citywide committee was appointed by the school board and has 44 members made up of a broad cross section of city residents, including representatives of parent and student groups, foundations and city government.

At last night's meeting, the committee considered a series of options affecting city school buildings, most of which are old, dilapidated and inefficient to operate.

The school board is planning to close the Southwestern high school complex this summer, but the committee had difficulty finding a new location for the Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, now located there. It eventually recommended that the school move into the complex that houses Talent Development High School, Harlem Park Elementary/Middle and Harlem Park Middle.

Harlem Park Middle, scheduled to close in 2008, could shut down a year early.

The school system would likely use the building being vacated by Thomas G. Hayes to temporarily house students from Dunbar Middle. Dunbar High students would occupy Dunbar Middle during a major renovation of their school.

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