A fine school, when it opens

City College hit by floods, heat breakdowns

February 13, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

At first, Hannah Walsh says, it was nice to have some extra time off from school.

She'd already had a little break two weeks ago, when all Baltimore public schools were closed Feb. 1 and 2 for staff training.

Then last week, her high school closed early on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday because of heating problems. Wednesday was a snow day.

By yesterday, when City College was closed for the entire day, this time because of a flood in the gymnasium, Walsh was getting annoyed. And now, with the forecast calling for snow, schools might shut down again today and tomorrow.

"Everybody I talked to actually wanted to go to school this morning," Walsh, a 15-year-old sophomore, said yesterday as she hung out at home with her 3-year-old brother. "I don't have anything to do with myself. ... You get to a point where you're not working and you're not doing anything and your brain is turning into a potato."

The repeated closures have sparked outrage among parents at City, a prestigious magnet school widely considered one of the bright spots in a troubled public school system. They are bombarding city, state and school officials with calls and e-mails, demanding to know when the building will be fixed and when their children will make up the lost instructional time.

"It's just been a mess," said Deborah Agus, whose son is a City sophomore. "They've been in school one day out of eight."

Added Cyril Smith, father of another sophomore: "This is one of the centers of excellence in Baltimore's educational system, but it's another mark of dysfunction."

Mayor Sheila Dixon has noted the complaints, and her office says she is now monitoring the building's status personally. "The mayor does not want the students to miss any more time than they already have," said Anthony McCarthy, a Dixon spokesman.

But there has been no simple fix for the heating system in City's 79-year-old building. The situation highlights the persistent challenges involved in operating Baltimore's public schools, which collectively need about $1 billion in basic upgrades. Though City was the only Baltimore school that closed yesterday, it is one of about a dozen that have had major heating problems during the recent cold snap.

Agus, whose son had attended a private middle school, said she fears that City's maintenance problems could discourage other middle-class families from sending their children there. The school serves a mix of low-income and middle-class students, all of whom must meet stringent admissions requirements.

"My son is on the swim team," Agus said. "Last year [the pool] was closed half the season because it was broken. This year we had to close twice because of chlorine. We love City, but the maintenance and the building -- it's a big issue."

City's current trouble started last Tuesday, when clogged coils in the heating units left several classrooms unheated.

Keith Scroggins, the school system's chief operating officer, said he had crews working at the school all day last Tuesday and again during the snow day Wednesday. "We thought we had the problem licked," he said. "On Thursday we noticed that it got worse."

The problem was fixed by Friday morning, Scroggins said. But about 8 a.m. that day, a heat exchanger burst, flooding two more classrooms. Students who had just arrived had to turn around and go home.

After crews worked through the weekend, Scroggins said, he got a call from workers at 4:15 a.m. yesterday, saying heat in the building wasn't rising properly. Within the hour, they discovered that a hot-water line had broken, flooding the gymnasium.

Scroggins said the building should be ready to reopen by today -- assuming snowy weather does not get in the way.

Extracurricular activities have been canceled on the days of the school closures. That's left 15-year-old Sarenka Smith, Cyril Smith's daughter, unable to rehearse for her leading role in the French play Tartuffe, which is scheduled to open at City in early March.

"I've learned my lines, but we haven't been able to have any rehearsal time or stage time," she said. "It's in a few weeks and we really haven't practiced at all."

Her friend Emily Swartz, also 15, was frustrated to miss four days of swim practice before Saturday's citywide championship meet. The City girls team placed third, but Swartz couldn't help but wonder if the outcome would have been better without the lost days.

The girls were also worried about being unprepared for the national exams administered in the spring in their Advanced Placement classes. They felt even worse for juniors and seniors in the International Baccalaureate program, which also administers exams that can't be delayed.

School system spokeswoman Edie House said City will not make up the lost time, except for Wednesday's snow day and any other days when all city schools are closed.

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