Public schools can accommodate displaced students, officials say

Former Catholic school students may not get first choice in Baltimore city classrooms

March 03, 2010|by Liz Bowie and Mary Gail Hare | Baltimore Sun reporter

Public schools in Baltimore and the city's suburbs could easily absorb the students being displaced by a wave of Catholic school closings, but parents and students might find their first choices out of reach.

In Baltimore, some of the best-performing elementary schools in desirable neighborhoods are at capacity.

Slots at popular high schools such as Polytechnic Institute and Digital Harbor High are filling up fast, which could leave students at the closing Cardinal Gibbons school frustrated.

To be sure, many parents and students prefer an education infused with religion and may not look at public schools at all, despite Baltimore City's rising test scores and Baltimore County's long-standing reputation as a place with high-achieving students.

Public systems did not immediately announce plans to recruit aggressively from closing parochial classrooms.

Trish Jasinski of Bowleys Quarters said she will spend most of this spring looking for new school for her fifth-grader at closing St. Clare School in Essex -- and it will be Catholic.

"There are two public middle schools in our area. I would not send my child to either," she said. "They are both unacceptable."

In the city, those who consider public middle and high schools face an array of options, because families can select from dozens of choices throughout the city.

Baltimore's elementary students attend neighborhood schools, and most of those would be able to accommodate additional students, said schools chief Andrés Alonso.

But some neighborhood schools are at capacity. For instance, Mt. Washington Elementary School, which is near the closing Shrine of the Sacred Heart, has reached its capacity, he said.

Schools officials would work with parents to find alternatives if they lived in that neighborhood. "Once the school is filled, then we offer other options nearby," he said.

Because the closings have been announced relatively late in the school year, some parents will find that the deadline for applying to city charter schools and high schools has passed. Eighth-graders have already made their high-school selections and charter schools sign-ups were last month.

This year's fifth-graders have until April 30 to select a middle school.

Laura Weeldreyer, deputy chief of staff for city schools, said officials will try to help parents and potential students make sense of the choices. "We feel really confident that we can serve any student who comes to the city schools," she said.

Parents in some neighborhoods may be out of luck, however.

As Baltimore enrollments declined over the past two decades, the system usually had seats available in the neighborhood school a child wanted to attend. But the city's student population is now growing, rising by 680 this school year.

Roland Park Elementary, Mt. Washington, Hampstead Hill, Federal Hill and General Wolfe are some of the small number of schools that have reached capacity or are close, Alonso said.

Closed Catholic schools could boost the charter-school movement by providing space for new ventures.

"We know the charter schools have struggled to identify facilities," Weeldreyer said. "It might be a win-win to have another school go into the closed building.

"Given that may of these children are in our city, we would like to work closely with the archdiocese to make sure that great things happen in these buildings that serve their communities," she said.

Four of Baltimore's current charter schools are in closed Catholic schools, including Patterson Park Public Charter School, which bought the former home of St. Elizabeth of Hungary.

Bill Wilson, who is overseeing construction that will allow Patterson Park to expand, said it would be "very, very helpful" to other charter schools if the archdiocese shows flexibility.

In Baltimore County, schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said he anticipates no strain on public schools in the areas of the shuttered schools, saying the number of students affected "will not have an impact on us."

"We have ample space, particularly in the neighborhoods with older developments," Hairston said. County students are assigned to a particular school based on the boundaries of the zone their family lives in.

If too many displaced students flood the public schools, the districts have less money than they might have had the year before for each student. The state bases its public school funding on enrollment numbers from Sept. 30 of the previous year.

"Obviously, we will have to make adjustments to funding," Hairston said. "But every student will have the space to which he or she is entitled."

Not everyone wants those spaces, however.

"I don't know what I'm going to do now," said Ted Ewachiw, the father of two children at Sacred Heart of Mary School in East Baltimore. "I don't want to send them to public."

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Calvert contributed to this article.

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