School Reform Plan Stirs Anxiety

City Parents, Leaders Question Transportation, Academic Standards, Gang Boundaries

April 17, 2009|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

Parents and community members expressed concerns and confusion Thursday night over a plan to reorganize several Baltimore schools, closing failing ones and expanding those that are successful.

More than 100 people came to the Polytechnic Institute/Western High School complex for the first of two hearings on school closure and merger proposals.

The proposals are part of a reorganization plan unveiled last month by city schools chief Andr?s Alonso, who says his goal is to create more schools that students want to attend and where parents don't feel they have to settle. The plan would affect about three dozen schools and thousands of students, and is subject to a school board vote April 28.

Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the community has not received adequate answers to logistical questions such as the transportation implications of the plan. He also said he's worried about placing middle and high school students in the same schools, as is planned in numerous instances.

Many speakers pointed to the potential for escalated gang violence when moving students to neighborhoods across gang lines.

The mother of a junior at Samuel L. Banks High, proposed for closure, said her daughter doesn't want to separate from her friends for her senior year. Parents from National Academy Foundation High said they're worried about the school maintaining its academic rigor if it absorbs the student population of struggling Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School in 2010. They want to keep NAF's academic entrance criteria.

Alonso met Thursday with students from the Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship, who do not want to see their school moved out of the Walbrook complex and staged a protest earlier in the week.

Under Alonso's plan, the Walbrook building would close entirely next academic year - with IBE moving and Homeland Security Academy shutting down. The Walbrook building would be reconfigured to open in 2010, housing two new single-gender schools, one for boys and one for girls.

Parents and community members are organizing against the proposed closure of Harriet Tubman Elementary, saying the school is one of the few bright spots in the area and that system officials took them by surprise with the recommendation. Officials say the school is low-performing and under-enrolled.

At the thriving William Pinderhughes Elementary, some parents are wary about moving the school out of its building and into the one now occupied by struggling George Kelson Elementary/Middle, absorbing Kelson's student body and nearly tripling in size.

Other recommendations include closing William H. Lemmel Middle, the school where a boy was fatally stabbed outside last fall. A charter school in the building would then expand and a new alternative school would open there, alongside the relocated IBE.

The successful NAF would move to get more space and enable the expansion of its current neighbor, Digital Harbor High. NAF parents said they want assurance that its new building in the old Thomas G. Hayes Elementary would be in the same excellent condition as the one they would be leaving.

Staff at schools recommended to close would be offered other jobs. The second hearing is scheduled 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday at the Lake Clifton complex.

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