School Shuffle Gets Ok

City Board Votes To Close Seven Schools In Extensive Reorganization

April 29, 2009|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

Despite public protests and predictions of escalated violence, the Baltimore school board voted Tuesday night to close six schools this summer and a seventh next year, triggering a major reorganization of the system.

The board voted to close William H. Lemmel Middle, Harriet Tubman Elementary, Samuel Banks High, Thurgood Marshall High, Homeland Security Academy and George Kelson Elementary/Middle this summer, and to close Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle in the summer of 2010.

William Pinderhughes Elementary will move into the building now occupied by Kelson and absorb its student population. The National Academy Foundation high school will move to the old Thomas G. Hayes Elementary building, across the street from Dunbar Middle, and next year will expand into both buildings to include the middle school's students.

The purpose of the overall reorganization, proposed last month by schools chief Andr?s Alonso, is to expand successful schools like Pinderhughes and NAF while closing failing ones. NAF's relocation will also enable the expansion of its current neighbor, popular Digital Harbor High. The plan will affect three dozen schools.

Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and NAACP president, was among dozens who turned out to urge the board not to merge Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High - which for decades has educated pregnant girls and teen mothers - with an alternative school for overage middle school students. Mfume said it would be "untenable" and "destructive" to put 200 boys in Paquin's building, saying there could be child abuse or sexual abuse. City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and several girls with babies supported him.

Rosetta Stith, Paquin's director, proposed an expanded program to serve all girls who are at risk, not only those who are pregnant or mothers. Paquin is using a fraction of the space in its building.

It was unclear whether the merger is already a done deal. The board does not need to vote on it because Paquin is technically a program rather than a school, and Alonso has the authority to close or merge programs without board approval.

At two public hearings, people warned the board that transferring students to different neighborhoods across gang lines would lead to increased violence. Alonso has responded that Baltimore can never be a healthy city if the public accepts that certain kids can't go into certain neighborhoods.

NAF students and parents expressed concern about moving out of a state-of-the-art building to an older building in a different part of town. NAF has entrance requirements, while Dunbar is a zoned neighborhood school. The co-chairs of NAF's advisory board said they are eager to serve more students in the new location, but they're asking for $5.6 million in building upgrades.

Advocates rallied in recent days to save Tubman, home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids program, and Lemmel, where a student was fatally stabbed outside in November. Karen Kotchka, an instructional support teacher at Lemmel, wrote in a letter to the school board that students "are being asked to give up their community school where, in most cases, they have been successful and feel safe, and transfer to another low-performing school outside of their neighborhood." Lemmel students will have the option of attending other schools including a charter school in the same building.

The vote to close Tubman was 5-4.

Homeland Security was largely emptied in January, when Alonso gave all underclassmen the option of transferring elsewhere and most of them did. With its closure and the relocation of neighboring Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship to the Lemmel building, the Walbrook high school complex will close next year for renovations. It is scheduled to reopen in 2010, housing a new all-boys school and a new all-girls school.

Staff at the closing schools will have the option of transferring elsewhere in the system.

The school board also approved a plan Tuesday night to restructure Moravia Park Elementary/Middle, requiring all employees - including the principal - to reapply for their jobs. Those not accepted back into their positions will be offered jobs at other schools. Moravia Park must restructure under the federal No Child Left Behind Act as it failed to meet test benchmarks for several years.

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