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School closings favored by panel

5,300 students in city will be moved in fall if board OKs plan aimed at increasing efficiency

By Sara Neufeld
Sun reporter

February 15, 2006

Five school buildings would close and more than 5,300 students would be shifted to different schools this fall under a plan presented to Baltimore's school board last night.

The proposal is the first step in a push to meet state demands to drastically cut the cost of operating the financially strapped system, which is saddled with old, deteriorating buildings and dwindling enrollment.

The school system wants to reduce its square footage by 15 percent - 2.7 million square feet - over the next three years. Closing the five schools would get the system almost halfway to its goal by reducing operating space by about 7 percent, about 1.3 million square feet, school officials say.

The school board is expected to vote on the plan on March 28.

Michael Carter, chairman of the committee that made the recommendations, said proposing that schools be closed "had tremendous challenges from the start."

"We still have trepidations about what we present to you tonight, but we present it anyway," he said, noting that certain schools intially discussed for closing "abruptly disappeared from the equation" because of community politics.

He said middle schools are disproportionately affected in the plan, and middle school parents by and large didn't speak out to save their schools.

Elmer A. Henderson Elementary, Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy, Highlandtown Middle, the Southwestern High complex and the building housing Dr. Samuel L. Banks High and the Academy of Career and College Exploration would close in the fall.

Pupils at Elmer Henderson, Roland N. Patterson and Highlandtown would be dispersed to other schools, and the four small high schools in the Southwestern complex, Banks and ACCE would move to other buildings.

 
10-year plan
In addition to the recommendations for next school year, the school board received last night a proposed 10-year plan for every public school building in Baltimore. That plan, which was not immediately made available, will detail proposed renovations and construction, in addition to further closings. It is also scheduled for a March 28 vote by the school board.

Among the highlights of the recommendations:

 
  • ACCE would move into the Robert Poole Middle School building, and Robert Poole Middle would be phased out and would cease to exist by 2008. Harlem Park Middle would stop admitting sixth-graders and would close by 2008.

     
  • Students from one of the schools inside Southwestern, the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, would move into Harbor City West High, an alternative school. Harbor City West students would be moved to other alternative programs around the city.

     
  • Four elementary schools - Harford Heights, Commodore John Rodgers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pimlico - would add sixth through eighth grades to accommodate displaced middle school pupils.

    The state has demanded that the city schools operate more efficiently in the face of declining enrollment and deteriorating buildings, threatening to withhold school construction money if buildings are not closed. The city school system has space for 125,000 students and 85,000 students enrolled.

    "The closure part is the painful part, but the plan and where we're going is exciting," Eric Letsinger, the system's chief operating officer, said in an interview before the meeting.

    The immediate recommendations and the 10-year plan grew out of 58 public meetings held over the past four months, Letsinger said. Committees in eight regions of the city held hearings and circulated surveys, then formulated recommendations that they forwarded to a citywide committee that included school system administrators, parent and community advocates, representatives of city agencies and politicians.

    The citywide committee compiled the final recommendations that were forwarded to the school board last night.

    The school system spent $1 million to hire an Ohio consulting firm, DeJong & Associates, to lead the community through the process that led to the recommendations.

    School system officials say the consultant retains an active role in compiling data, but members of the firm became less visible at community meetings as the process went on and community activists said they didn't understand the needs of Baltimore.

    In coming weeks, the school system will hold hearings about the schools proposed for closing or relocation, as is required by state law. Community opposition to some of the changes is expected to be fierce.

    Fliers about a student "walkout and strike" March 1 to March 3 were circulating yesterday. The protest is being organized by students in the Baltimore Algebra Project, who say no schools should be closed until all classes are reduced to 20 students or fewer.

    School system officials say that closing schools would result in more resources for the schools remaining.

    Letsinger said the closings recommended for next school year would give the system $14 million to improve the buildings of the schools that would receive the extra students.

    In addition, he said, the receiving schools would get an extra $600,000 to cover the salaries of security personnel and $800,000 to pay custodial personnel coming from the closing schools.

    "The receiving schools will be cleaner, safer ... with repairs done faster," Letsinger said. Even after cutting 2.7 million square feet, officials say, they will have space for more than 100,000 students, and enrollment is expected to continue to decline in coming years.

    All school buildings are owned by the city of Baltimore, and any vacated buildings would be turned over to the city. Letsinger said it is premature to discuss plans for the properties.

     
    No lost jobs
    No staff members would lose their jobs as a result of the school closings, system officials said. Teachers would move with students to their new schools.

    The recommendations illustrate the system's shift away from conventional middle schools in favor of schools serving pre-kindergarten or kindergarten through eighth grade.

    System officials say pupils perform better in K-8 schools because they are smaller and more personal. Opponents say elementary schools can be ill-equipped to handle middle school pupils because they lack resources such as science and computer labs.

    Six of the city's middle schools are designated by the state as "persistently dangerous" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Two of those schools, Highlandtown and Harlem Park, are among those recommended for closing.

    Gail Levy, a school psychologist at Highlandtown, said the school is "an anchor of the community. ... You're not just closing a school, you're disrupting a history." Nevertheless, she said, "the building has been neglected for years. This is the end of a long time of total neglect of that building."

     
    sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

    Copyright 2006, The Baltimore Sun

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