Ambitious renovation would also mean closing 20 to 30 schools, Alonso says

Board votes to shut Southside Academy after one-year reprieve.

johnston school window

Outdated, screen-less windows at Baltimore’s Johnston Square Elementary School are so cloudy the students inside are barely visible.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Baltimore City schools chief Andrés Alonso last night got the school board’s OK for shutting down a single low-performing school, Southside Academy, but he is anticipating a much more sweeping program of closings.

“I believe we’ll soon be in a position to renovate many more of our schools,” Alonso said. “If we are going to do nearly what we need to do, it will mean closing 20 to 30 schools.”

Alonso has put forward an ambitious $1.3 billion plan to finance the first phase of the overhaul of the city’s school buildings, which suffer from age and decades of neglected maintenance.

The outline of the proposal, but not its magnitude. has the support of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who wants to increase the bottle tax from 2 cents to 5 cents.

The plan also calls on the Maryland General Assembly to change the rules that govern the way the state doles out capital-improvement money to Baltimore. The bills are unlikely to pass this session, which is winding up.

Still, Alonso’s optimism may be warranted in the medium term. Other school districts with aging and neglected buildings have made the leap from patching their schools to aggressive physical-plant overhauls.

The District of Columbia, for instance, has upgraded many of its buildings over the past 6 years. Kansas City, Mo., has put together financial package to do the same, and New Haven, Conn., has just about rebuilt all of its schools over a 17-year period.

Baltimore’s schools are in a relatively strong position to make their ask from the mayor and legislature, too, because five-year incumbent Alonso has overseen generally rising test scores and a slight growth in district enrollment.

Mass School Closings Common

Still, as Alonso in effect pointed out at yesterday’s school board meeting, big money for buildings is unlikely to make its appearance without a reduction in the number of schools. Like the city’s population, the school district’s has mostly been in a long, slow slide since the middle of the last century.

That has left the district overbuilt by the standards of other Maryland school systems. State legislators from suburban areas have long criticized Baltimore for having much more classroom space than it needs.

At the same time, a number of urban rust-belt school districts have been showing the way by so-called right-sizing. According to a 2011 report from a Philadelphia research group funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts at least six school districts in the Northeast and the Midwest have shuttered from 20 to almost 60 schools apiece in the last decade.

Philadelphia is preparing now to close a raft of schools. The District of Columbia took 23 of its 141 buildings out of service in 2008 when its enrollment was 71,000 students, about 85% of Baltimore’s current school population.

The six districts cited in the report and Philadelphia have all seen declining enrollments. In making their closing choices, school officials in the various school systems took into account various factors, such as age and condition of buildings, demographics and schools’ performance and programs.

“A Set of Principles”

In last night’s discussion before the board’s vote on school closures, Alonso asked the panel to focus more on the big picture and less on the details of the four schools that would be immediately affected by their votes.

“We want a set of principles that allow us to do [closings] wholesale,” he told them.

The board had a look at what some of those criteria might be when Tisha Edwards, the system’s chief of staff, showed a slide with the considerations used for “identifying the lowest performing schools” [link here: ]. Among the criteria were:

• student achievement trends
• student enrollment trends
• building-use rate and building-upkeep cost
• location and other enrollment options available
• previous attempts to turn around the school.

Edwards said a work group had deemed Southside Academy in Cherry Hill a failing school, which led to Alonso’s recommendation for closing it. School officials have abolished 13 other schools and opened an equal number over the past three years as part of the “Expanding Great Options” program.

Southside’s Days Numbered

In an 10-1 vote, the board approved Alonso’s recommendation, including keeping Southside alive for another year. An earlier version of the recommendation was to close the school at the end of this school year.

Board member David Stone questioned the cost of keeping the school open next year when, he said, more than 60% of students at the school miss more than 20 days of school. School officials acknowledged that the entire enrollment next year may fall below 100.

Parents, students and community leaders objected but Southside Academy, after a one-year reprieve, is closing.

Parents, students and community leaders objected but Southside Academy, after a one-year reprieve, is closing.(Photo credit University of Maryland)

But Alonso countered that keeping the school open another year was a way of gaining the community’s good-faith participation in discussions about getting a school that works for the area.

The largely poor and black area is geographically isolated on the south side of the Patapsco River, between two large highways.

New Era High School shares a building with Southside, but its student outcomes, such as graduation, while better than Southside’s, are still “not good enough,” the superintendent said.

In the end, Stone voted with the majority.

Three Middle-Levels Shut

The board also voted in favor of Alonso’s recommendation to lop off the middle grades from three schools that currently serve pre-Kindergarten to 8th graders: Federal Hill Preparatory School, Moravia Park Elementary/Middle School and Steuart Hill Academic Academy.

The middle grades in all three schools have struggled, school officials said. Closing those grades would help strengthen the elementary ones while giving middle-level students better options elsewhere, they said.

Some parents said their middle-level students were paying too high a price. Families from the three schools came to the board meeting, silently protesting the change. One student held a sign with a multicolored border saying, “No Northeast,” referring to a middle school he did not want to attend.

Parents have argued that the process comes too late because most middle-grade slots have already been claimed for the coming school year.

School officials said they would work with families as a group at each school and individually, if necessary, to find good options.

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  • Westside Resident

    This is a bold vision for reform that will cause an uproar of established interests. Exactly what this city needs.

  • Daniel E

    I’d like to see any of the schools shut down turned into community gardens or parks. When this issue was first brought up, residents near at-risk schools fretted about losing a neighborhood anchor. Making the facilities into another public space would continue their usage and can prevent blight. There’s already some gardens in the city operating out of old schools so wouldn’t be hard to replicate.

  • Cindy Walsh

    Closing city schools based on development plans seems to be something you would see decades ago, before the civil rights/equal education era.  All these schools are in areas of affluent development, so the reason for the choice is clear.  The fact that these schools and the students have failed to achieve have to do with the scarcity of resources over decades…the schools sometimes crumbling facade shows how the city neglected to give these communities what was needed to suceed.  Now there is an explosion of resources coming to Baltimore for education…. building for the middle-class…..and again, you see the same communities and families moved aside with no assurance they will see the benefits of this new renaissance.  EDBI even uprooted 700 people to create the community it wanted.

    Do things like that happen in a free and democratic society?  No….that’s the rub, this defines the society in which we really live! 

  • Barnadine the Pirate

    Baltimore may have too many classrooms, but my kids’ school has 30 kids per classroom, and 800 kids using a cafeteria that holds 150 people at a time. These facts seem at odds with one another.

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