Plan to relocate school decried

Shifting students to Harlem Park will lead to trouble, critics say

February 18, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

The Harlem Park school complex includes a preschool designed to give youngsters a leg up on learning, a highly regarded public high school run in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University and programs to keep kids busy after school.

Children ages 3 to 17 are thriving, according to Kacy Conley, director of Urban Services for the YMCA of Central Maryland.

At least for now, she said.

Conley was among community leaders, parents and teachers who testified yesterday that a plan to move another school to the campus threatened progress in Harlem Park.

"The toughest facilities problem has received the least attention," said Robert Balfanz, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools and an administrator at the Talent Development High School at the Harlem Park complex.

Balfanz and others urged the board to delay its decision on a plan to close or relocate 10 city schools for 30 days while community leaders work to find alternatives.

The city school board is scheduled to vote on the second of three rounds of school closings at its Feb. 27 meeting.

At the third and final public hearing on the school closure proposal yesterday at Polytechnic Institute, parents and teachers spoke about fears that more students would be victims of street robberies and assaults because more of them would be bused to schools. They also echoed concerns of parents and community leaders at the previous hearings about the wisdom of combining elementary and middle schools, and expressed skepticism that the money saved from closing schools would be spent on new programs for students.

"You can't place buildings over the education and safety of our children," said Wendy Foy, head of Lillie M. Jackson Alternative Elementary Schools' special-education citizen advisory committee. That facility would be moved to the Hilton Elementary School location, according to the recommendations by the school system's facility solutions committee.

Among the proposals is moving Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts to the Harlem Park complex, currently home to an elementary and middle school, the Umoja Head Start program and Talent Development High School.

The principal of Talent Development has threatened to quit over the move, which he predicts would cause fights between Talent Development and Augusta Fells Savage students.

The recommendations under consideration by the board call for closing Canton, Hamilton, Lombard, Southwest and Thurgood Marshall middle schools by summer 2009. Schools housing kindergarten through eighth grade would be created in their place.

Additionally, Pimlico Middle School, and Thomas G. Hayes and Lafayette elementary schools would be closed this summer under the proposal.

School officials say the school closures and moves are aimed at saving the financially strapped system more than $20 million in capital projects and deferred maintenance in the long run, as well as $2 million annually in operating expenses.

With space for tens of thousands more students than it has enrolled, the city school board voted in the fall of 2005 to reduce its operating space by 15 percent -- or 2.7 million square feet -- over three years.

The school board has been under pressure from state officials, who have threatened to cut off money for construction and renovations if city schools don't start operating more efficiently. The city schools need an estimated $1 billion in basic upgrades. School board members have promised that, by closing schools, there will be more money to renovate the buildings left open.

The board voted last year to close the enormous Southwestern high school complex, which housed four small high schools, in the summer of 2006. However, parents at Lafayette Elementary and Calverton Middle School, which share a building, were furious over a proposal to move one of the small high schools, the Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, to run alongside them.

As a result, the school board delayed the closure of the Southwestern complex by a year. Two of the small high schools moved last summer, but another two -- Augusta Fells Savage and Southwestern High No. 412 -- remained for one more year. Southwestern 412 is an alternative school that will cease to exist at the end of this school year.

Officials have said they must shutter the Southwestern complex this year if they are to show the state they are making a good-faith effort to operate more efficiently. After extensive deliberations, a community steering committee recommended putting Augusta Fells Savage in the Harlem Park complex.

Critics say Augusta Fells Savage would take up too much space at the Harlem Park complex and that portable classrooms would have to be added to accommodate additional students.

Already, there's a lack of athletic facilities, said Monique Y. Cox, the after-school coordinator at Baltimore Talent Development.

Jerald Williams, a special education resource teacher at Augusta Fells Savage, challenged the school officials to show parents and staff how the proposed move is better for students.

"Show me how we will make the new location safe," Williams said. "Show me how we will have the proper square footage per student in classrooms where they will not be stuffed in like sardines."

Sun reporter Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.

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