Closing with care

February 26, 2007

Baltimore's board of school commissioners is scheduled to vote this week on a second round of school closings, an inevitably painful process that has left many individuals and communities upset that their neighborhood schools are being shut down or reconfigured.

Despite the pain, in many cases the recommendations that emerged from the system's facility solutions committee reflect the board's general preference for converting traditional middle schools to K-8 schools. But in at least one case involving Harlem Park schools, the board should reconsider and try to come up with another solution.

The city's nearly 180 school buildings can accommodate about 125,000 students, yet the school population is less than 85,000. With a nudge from state officials who want to see the system run more efficiently, the city school board agreed to reduce operating space by 15 percent over three years. The latest recommendations focus heavily on middle schools, with the proposed closing of three this summer and five more by summer 2009. They would be replaced mostly by K-8 schools, which have generally shown better student achievement than many of the city's traditional middle schools.

But a proposal to move Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts to the Harlem Park complex, which already houses an elementary and middle school, a Head Start program and Talent Development high school, has drawn vociferous community protests, including a threat to quit by Talent Development's principal. The board has certainly heard concerns before about student safety and possibly lower student achievement when faced with combining schools - concerns that have not always materialized.

This proposal, however, deserves a second look. Friends of Harlem Park rightly worry that the campus would have to resort to portable classrooms in order to accommodate another school - a move that would seem to undermine the board's downsizing goal - and that the educational mission, which has relied on a careful, comprehensive approach to learning that includes after-school programs, would be compromised.

They are asking for an extra 30 days to devise alternatives. Given the potentially troubling consequences of this reorganization, that's the least the board should do.

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