The Baltimore Algebra Project, an organization of youth education activists, seized control of the school board voting session last night and delayed a controversial vote on city school closures.
As soon as the closure of Heritage High was announced, seven Algebra Project members staged a “die-in,” lying on the floor chanting, “The school board has failed us,” and “Black lives matter.”
When it became clear the Algebra Project had taken over the meeting, the 10-member board left the room.
Tre Murphy, one of the protesters, said to the board as they filed out, “Where are you going? You work for us.”
Returning later after the students had left, the commissioners resumed the voting. Of the six schools slated for closure, only Abbottston Elementary was granted a reprieve, after a plea from City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and community leaders.
The board decided to delay its decision on closing Abbottston until early next year, said City Schools Superintendent Gregory E. Thornton.
“We’ve received so many letters and emails about the school in the last couple of days, we need time to process them,” he said.
Disconnected from the People?
The Algebra Project protest centered on Heritage High School in Northeast Baltimore, but addressed closures citywide. Jerry McNutt, a spokesman for the group, told The Brew he believes the school board failed city students by closing schools, such as Heritage, where they were having success.
McNutt, a Heritage graduate who now works as a math paraprofessional at the Baltimore Design School, said the commissioners are disconnected from the people they serve.
“The school board members are not part of these communities,” he said. “The board members who do have kids in city schools have kids in charters. It’s different when you only have one or two school choices.”
McNutt would like to see the board better reflect the residents who use the public school system. Specifically, a current school parent and a recent city schools alumnus should be part of the board, he said.
For Heritage students, McNutt said, the school’s proximity made a difference, as did close relationships with faculty. “Students trust the faculty. The school was changing lives.”
None of the commissioners spoke in support of, or opposition to, the protesters.
“You Can’t Trespass and take over the Board”
Members of the public have disrupted school board meetings before, but last night’s protest was dramatic. Algebra Project members occupied the commissioners’ seats after they left and took testimony on the closure of Heritage.
A former Heritage teacher and a Heritage parent both spent about five minutes each sharing the school’s history.
Eventually, the public schools police, who were posted at the building, came in to stop the protest peacefully. At one point, an officer sat down next to the protesters, but it wasn’t until state Sen. Joan Carter Conway spoke to the youth that they dispersed.
Carter Conway said she didn’t disagree with them about the school board’s decision – that she herself was there to protest. “But you can’t trespass and take over the board,” she admonished them.
Jamal Jones, co-director of the Algebra Project, told The Brew afterwards he was “50 percent” satisfied with the protest.
“We wanted a retraction of the Heritage closure vote, and we didn’t get it,” he said. But he was encouraged that Carter Conway offered to work with them to ensure the board understood their concerns.
“We need to hold the school board accountable for their decisions.”