Out with the old: Closing schools and reimagining a new Baltimore
When you ask people what their school means to them, they think of the memories that they had: The teachers, the classes and activities they were involved in, the friends they made, and even the role the school played in the community. Bill Bleisch, a former Baltimore high school teacher, remembered a special statue out in front of his school, Eastern High School, “There had been a stone sculpture, by artist Grace Turnbull, showing a shepherd tending a flock of sheep. It was based on a poem called Tears, published in 1909 by Lizette Woodworth Reese, who herself had been a Baltimore Public School teacher for nearly 50 years.” The statue was inspiring for students who were from poor and working class neighborhoods that surrounded Eastern. When Eastern closed in the 1980’s, this large statue was moved to make room for a Johns Hopkins University medical facility. This was a sad moment for Bleisch and the students and alumni from Eastern, but he adds, “That is what happens when schools are closed. Things get moved around. The story changes, and memories fade.”
Today 26 schools are closing in Baltimore. They are being closed to “right size” the school district. The city’s population has been steadily declining for many years and the district, once home to over 100,000 students, is now at about 82,000. In 2013, education leaders released a report that declared many of the city’s schools under-utilized, and put them on the chopping block.
The school closing plan is not just about having the right number of schools for the population, but it is also part of a new story that Baltimore is trying to write for itself. After decades of disinvestment, and a recent series of protests, the city is trying to usher in a new phase that will address its seemingly impenetrable cycle of poverty. The city will renovate its remaining schools under something called the 21st century plan and launch an “innovation district” in the middle of the city. No more blight and vacant buildings, but a district where new residents will live, tech entrepreneurs and members of the creative class.
These plans exclude current residents from Baltimore’s new iteration. Current residents, most of whom are African-American and middle and low income, struggle with basic needs. These are folks who send their children to schools like Westside Elementary, which will be closing in 2016 due to under-enrollment and poor performance. Still, the school is home to an active community school program, which provides a food pantry, enrichment programs, and medical services to. Although it is not a high performing school, Westside is a neighborhood anchor. And as social psychologist Michelle Fine states, “a school is a neighborhood resource, even when it is producing devastating outcomes for kids.”
However, the new plans for Baltimore do not imagine schools as neighborhood resources, Rather, the remaining schools in the city will be renovated to serve a new kind of resident, one that can bring more of their own resources to Baltimore, not one that will need resources. While the city desperately needs an economic boost, the current residents are not seen as central to this new chapter in Baltimore’s history. Like the statue in front of Eastern High School, they will be moved and replaced by something more useful.