City schools unveil 10-year renovation plan

Twenty-six buildings to close; more than 100 to be rehabbed

  • Baltimore's Northwestern High School is one of 26 school buildings the city plans to close in the next decade.
Baltimore's Northwestern High School is one of 26 school… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
November 27, 2012|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

In the next 10 years, Baltimore's school system will have a leaner, modernized look under a proposed $2.4 billion facilities plan that calls for closing 26 school buildings and upgrading 136 others in a large-scale face-lift of Maryland's oldest school infrastructure.

The plan, announced by CEO Andrés Alonso on Tuesday, would orchestrate the relocation of some schools to different buildings; others would cease to exist.

The first schools affected are four recommended to close at the end of the current school year: Baltimore Rising Star Academy, Garrison Middle, Patapsco Elementary/Middle, and William C. March Middle.

"There will be many difficult decisions, but all will place students in better buildings than they are in today," Alonso said in a news conference attended by the mayor and other political leaders. "Big picture: The plan is right for kids and necessary to take their progress to the next level."

The revamped system will allow for a more efficient use of space, Alonso said, adding that "every single one of those buildings will be equal to the need of our students."

But as news spread across the city, parents and educators in schools that could face closures grappled with the uncertainty of their students' futures.

"I'm totally shocked," said Dana Jones-Hines, who has a junior and a freshman at Northwestern High School, which is recommended for closing in 2015-2016. "I had anticipated my kids graduating from here. I am just mind-boggled right now."

The school board is expected to vote on the 10-year plan in January, and will also have to approve any school closures slated in a given year.

School board members who attended the news conference held at Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary School -- a school at 119 percent of its rated capacity and slated for a renovation -- supported the plan.

Board President Neil Duke said that the plan's announcement wasn't the time to "take a victory lap."

"A decade is too long," Duke said. "We have to hustle, folks."

"This is a day of reckoning," echoed School Board Commissioner Bob Heck. "This is our shot. There's no question about that."

The four schools recommended for 2012-2013 closures had building utilization rates between 20 percent and 50 percent, and have also struggled academically, school officials said. Fewer than 1,000 students will be affected by this year's proposed closures, officials said, and teachers will be shifted around to accommodate students who disperse to different schools next year.

The view from Garrison

As students and staffers at Garrison Middle School poured out of the building into a chilly afternoon after the final bell at 4:05, the community was just starting to digest the news.

Debra Powell, a special education paraprofessional, said the news shocked and unnerved her a bit -- she's two years from retirement and expected to finish her career at Garrison. Still, it wasn't a complete surprise.

Since joining the staff a year and a half ago, she'd heard rumors this might be coming.

"I guess I just didn't believe it would ever really happen," she said.

Powell was guardedly positive about the choice of Garrison. Although she said it is much safer than in the 1980s, when her nephews attended it, she also said it lacks the variety of after-school programs that students deserve.

"If [the closing] ends up giving them more opportunities, we have to accept it and move on," said Powell, who expects to be assigned to another school next year. "We have to be sure that their education continues so they can reach the goals they have."

Officials and advocates said the sacrifices that school communities face will mean facilities better suited to serve students in the 21st century -- from basics such as drinking water and temperature control to state-of-the-art amenities like technology hubs and culinary kitchens.

"There are not many moments in your life when you realize you are standing on the edge of something great," said Sherelle Savage, a parent advocate with the Baltimore Education Coalition, who spoke through tears at the news conference.

She said her "budding artist" and her "chef in the making" lack the facilities to hone their skills in their schools. Her youngest son, she said, is among the lucky students in his school because his classroom's windows open.

"Our buildings are in crisis," Savage said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake lauded the plan as a "tremendous day for our schools," saying it built upon the legacy of her late father, a former state delegate and dogged champion for education.

"The decisions that have to be made to close some schools are going to be rough all around," Rawlings-Blake said. "Everyone has an emotional attachment, a historic attachment, but we have to have a stronger attachment to these [students]."

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