Charter and independent schools faced financial, academic challenges

Schools fighting closures connected to high-profile figures and institutions

  • Students of Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy packed the Baltimore City Public Schools Board of Commissioners during a meeting on the renewal recommendation of operator run schools (charter schools).
Students of Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy packed the Baltimore… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
February 09, 2013|By Erica L. Green and Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun

In response to a system that many believed had long failed young black boys, a school began to take shape seven years ago in a small East Baltimore neighborhood.

The Bluford Drew Jemison Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Academy would educate "scholars" who would wear uniforms and neckties. The school would have 12-hour days and extended school years to cut the time students spent on the streets as they came to embody the "BDJ Way."

But several years later, students lacked textbooks, computers and art supplies, and instructors had to teach geography with a hand-drawn map of the U.S.

Amid years of financial mismanagement and lackluster achievement, Baltimore school officials are now proposing to close the politically connected school, whose co-founders include Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes and whose board of directors includes City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

Bluford is one of several charter and independently run schools with high-profile operators that the city school board could vote Tuesday to close at the end of the 2014 school year.

"It's a mess," said Stokes, who co-founded the school in 2006 but said he has been separated from day-to-day operations for about three years. "The operators who have the school now have done a number of bad things in terms of changing the vision."

City schools CEO Andrés Alonso recommended last month closing four independently operated schools and bringing two other schools under district control, after a months-long review of their progress concluded they had failed to live up to their promise.

While Alonso has championed the proliferation of charter schools, this would mark the first time he has sought to close any. In 2010, the schools chief revoked one charter license, but allowed the school to stay open.

Among the other schools slated for closure are Baltimore Talent Development High School and Baltimore Civitas Middle/High School — the brainchildren of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools, which for decades has been a leading institution in education research and reform in Baltimore and other urban cities.

In addition, the students of Baltimore Freedom Academy High School — who have marched the streets of Baltimore for slain teen Trayvon Martin and the halls of Annapolis for education funding, and who were also featured on the pages of People magazine to illustrate the abysmal conditions of schools across the country — could soon find themselves displaced.

In a contentious public forum last month, the school operators argued that their students might not fare any better in the public school system, which has its own shortcomings, such as limited resources and stagnant academics.

They said that in some cases, their student achievement data exceeded the district's average and doesn't accurately reflect the difference their unique programming has made in students' lives.

Bluford's board chairwoman asked for patience in turning around the city's most at-risk population, citing barriers to urban education reform.

"You can't educate poor, urban males and do it in the same way, with the same timeline — it takes more energy to acculturate them into a different lifestyle," said Anne Emery, a retired city educator.

"We get children who are foster children or extremely poor, but they look like everybody else because we put them in their uniform, they start to believe that, and achievement follows."

Operators also decried the review process — Baltimore Freedom Academy officials believed theirs was so skewed, they requested it be redone — and contend that some of the standards by which they were measured were inconsistent and unfair.

But Alonso has countered that "charters are supposed to be about innovation and performance. ... They should be about higher expectations. Not about excuses."

"I am offended by how the legacy of low expectations is still with us," Alonso said after the forum. "No one should get away with using the kids as the excuse for mediocrity or arguing that being average in Baltimore is OK. Or that somehow it's the system's fault."

Bad 'business'

City school officials acknowledged that the operators have long been well regarded in the community and said the recommendations were not intended to disparage the operators.

"School reform is really hard work, and these recommendations shouldn't be viewed as an individual rejection of an individual operator," said Alison Perkins-Cohen, who oversees the district's office of new initiatives. "We don't want to discourage partners that are taking on some really hard jobs, but we also don't want to continue having schools that aren't serving kids well."

A charter advisory board of representatives from the district's central office, parent and community boards, City Hall, unions and other organizations reviewed applications from 25 schools to renew their contracts.

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