Alonso wants to close one school, interventions at four others

Schools chief announces reorganization plans for failing schools

  • The Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship High School was originally recommended for closure last year, but was granted another year to improve its graduation numbers. Instead, the graduation rate declined along with enrollment.
The Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship High School… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
November 16, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

One chronically underperforming city high school would close at the end of the next school year, and four other schools would be restructured under a reorganization plan announced Tuesday by Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso.

For Alonso, the recommendation to close just a single school in Baltimore stands in marked contrast to the sweeping changes he orchestrated during his first two years as schools chief. Alonso said the more limited proposal is a reflection of students' growth on standardized tests and the improving climate of the district over the past three years.

There's no blueprint for how to address failing schools, according to Alonso, who says his approach is "a changing art form."

"How we make changes has to be reflective of what's going on in the field," he said.

In his first year as CEO, during the 2008-2009 school year, Alonso orchestrated the closing of seven failing schools over a two-year period, with the relocation of five schools to other facilities that would allow for expansion and use existing space better. Last year, he closed five schools, replacing two of them and merging a third with an expanding school.

"This is so remarkably different than 2008," said Neil Duke, president of the city's school board. "We would like to accept this superficially as evidence of school improvement. But whether it's 12 schools or one school, each year presents its own challenges."

This year, Alonso is suggesting just a single closure: the Institute for Business and Entrepreneurship High School. The school in West Baltimore was originally recommended for closure last year, but was granted another year to improve its graduation numbers.

Instead, the school's graduation rate declined along with its enrollment numbers. The school has seen a drop of 30 percentage points in the number of students graduating in the past three years; its students' test scores remain low; and only a few dozen students ranked it as their first choice when selecting a high school, which is not enough to fill a ninth-grade class, school officials said.

The school's leadership has also been at the source of controversy. In March, a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that the principal at IBE, Janice Williams, was accused of recruiting Filipino teachers to buy and sell thousands of dollars of Mary Kay cosmetic products for her. Williams, an independent sales director for Mary Kay, stood to gain financially from each transaction and was the subject of an internal school system investigation last year.

A new principal was appointed to the school in September.

Alonso said that linking the scandal and the decision to close the school "has no merit."

"If IBE's dropout rate had improved — as the rest of the district's has — I might not have approved the recommendation," he said. "It's about outcomes for kids."

Tisha Edwards, Alonso's chief of staff, told the board that IBE's ninth- and 10th-graders would be transferred next year, but its current 11th-graders would be allowed to finish their senior year at the school. The class was relocated from the Walbrook campus just last year, she said, and has been through enough instability.

Edwards said that a lawsuit lodged by a student who was enrolled in a Baltimore high school that was closed brought to light the fact that students in their senior year have opportunities such as college scholarships at stake.

"This is a school that has gone through several transitions throughout the year," Edwards told board members. "We feel pretty strongly to allow the students to keep their school intact. We want them to have an authentic senior experience."

Few members from the public attended the hearing, and board members did not take public testimony. Two public meetings will be held in December, and the school board will make a final decision about the recommendations in January.

Alonso is also recommending that four schools undergo restructuring internally or with the help of outside operators.

Patterson High School, a popular school in Southeast Baltimore, would undergo an internal overhaul to better serve its growing foreign population. The school system is proposing the changes because of declining performance on the High School Assessments among graduating seniors who were first-time test takers.

Patterson High has been in school improvement status, meaning its test scores have not met state standards, for 16 years and needs to strengthen its English for Speakers of Other Languages program, school officials said.

Moravia Park Elementary/Middle School would also place more focus on its growing international population, Edwards said. The school has struggled with the Maryland State Assessments, scoring about 60 percent and 49 percent proficiency in reading and math, respectively.

Edwards said that the changes proposed for the two schools are "critical" for the entire school system to learn how to better serve its foreign populations.

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