Plan may help save some city schools

State panel to consider factoring in spaces used for community services

February 22, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun reporter

The Baltimore school system might not have to close as many schools as anticipated if a statewide committee agrees to account for space for community services in calculating how many students a building can accommodate.

With room for tens of thousands more students than it has enrolled, the city school board is in the midst of reducing the system's operating space by 15 percent over three years. The state has threatened to cut off money to the city for school construction and renovations if the system does not start operating more efficiently.

But the school closure process comes just as another initiative, the push for community schools, is demanding more use of unoccupied space. This school year, 27 city schools began operating as community schools, which provide various social services to students and their families on site.

Community school advocates want to expand the concept citywide, but they say they need additional space to do so.

Today, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick will present the proposal to change the state's space calculation formula to the statewide committee that recommends funding for school construction to the Board of Public Works.

A vote on the proposal is not expected today, and any change must still be approved by the Board of Public Works - which means a new formula would not take effect in time to alter next week's planned city school board vote on additional closings.

Though Grasmick has been one of the strongest critics of inefficiency in city schools, her relationship with the system has improved in recent months and is reflected in this proposal being presented to the committee she leads.

Grasmick clashed openly with former city schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland, but she has a good relationship with the city's interim CEO, Charlene Cooper Boston. Grasmick's attitude toward the city schools has also changed since Gov. Martin O'Malley, formerly the mayor of Baltimore, was elected in November. Grasmick was an ally of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who frequently criticized management of city schools.

"It is a nice opening, pleasantly surprising. We've had some dialogues about this with the state," said Tom Stosur, the city schools' senior facilities planner, who helped draft the language of the proposal. "They were aware that maybe this was a component that might be a little more important to Baltimore City than [to] other jurisdictions."

David Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program, said one of the aspects the state is looking for is a clear-cut definition of a community school.

"We're very much in favor of community services inside of schools," Lever said. "It makes the schools more of a community. It's a more efficient use of the facility. And it can provide benefits for the students."

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a strong community schools supporter, met with Lever and Grasmick last month to discuss the initiative.

Clarke said she took up the issue after residents in her district expressed concern about schools in buildings being considered for closure possibly moving into the Lake Clifton high school complex.

Lake Clifton has one of the city's most developed community school programs, providing vocational training to students and parents in the school's basement, which is not needed for classroom space. Over the past year, the school system has considered moving the Laurence G. Paquin School for pregnant girls and teen mothers and Hamilton Middle School into the Lake Clifton basement.

"Every time we turn around, some closing school is being recommended in the very space we're developing for our community school services," Clarke said.

The initiative "will show that a lot of schools are more full than they seem to be because they have services that are community school services. As a city government, we blessed this and funded this initiative. This is pretty integral to schools and city," she said.

The city school board is scheduled to vote at its meeting Tuesday on a plan to close or relocate 10 schools as part of the second of three rounds of school closings.

One of the most disputed proposals calls for moving Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts to the Harlem Park complex, which houses an elementary and middle school, a Head Start program and Talent Development High School.

With aspirations of becoming one of the city's premier community schools, administrators at the Harlem Park complex have vehemently fought against sharing space with about 700 Augusta Fells Savage kids.

The proposal to account for community space could make it difficult to fit another school in the complex, according to Rachel Wallach, associate director of Baltimore Community School Connections, an advocacy group. Harlem Park already houses a YMCA office and other social services in its basement.

"We believe that students' success rests on strong classroom instruction and partnerships that support student learning and family," Wallach said.

Sun reporter Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.

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