Schools continue to close in Baltimore…
Recently the CEO of Baltimore schools declared that Renaissance High School would close. Baltimore has been suffering with school closure for the past few years as the implementation of the 21st century plan to improve school buildings gets put into practice. The plan, initiated in 2012, was meant to renovate all city school buildings, many of which are old and falling apart. Money from the state of Maryland was provided for this endeavor on the condition that the city school system agreed to close its most under-utilized schools. To gain the funding for renovation, the city schools agreed and the process of school closure began in earnest in 2013. Several schools have closed including Langston Hughes Elementary school, a recently renovated building in the Park Heights neighborhood of the city. The school had air conditioning and was in great condition, but it was under-enrolled. It was built for over 300 students and only had 176 when it closed. The announcement of the school closing produced an exodus from the school, local activists argued, not the other way around.
Under the 21st century plan, 26 schools in total are going to close. The students attending closed schools are sent to existing school buildings, merging the two small schools, and swelling their numbers. Two schools that combined recently, Westside Elementary and John Eager Howard Elementary now have over 400 students, for instance. This causes challenges in terms of school climate. The students do not know each other, the staff does not know all of the students, and the larger environment is not conducive to personalization. There are misunderstandings, fights, and little time to resolve conflict and build positive school culture. Still, we know from research that personalization helps students, especially low income students, learn because it allows for the teacher-student relationship to thrive, to pinpoint academic and social emotional needs that students bring to the classroom, and to build the connection that students have to school.
Consequently, this is a situation in which policy is colliding with what research says is best for children. Since over 80% of Baltimore’s public school students are low income, it would make sense to provide environments that allow for personalization to exist. Even the CEO of Baltimore schools agreed that there needs to be more attention to improving school climate. Yet, the school system is unable to provide those small school environments because of two key constraints. One is financial. It is expensive to maintain school buildings, and with school budgets being slashed every year, it is even more difficult. The ACLU of Maryland is one organization that works to ensure that the city schools receive the funding that they are due. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not work as well, but pushing for overall increased funds is certainly an organizing effort in which everyone who connects with city schools should be engaged.
The second is that the city promised the state that it would reduce the number of schools. This is also an important argument. The city must hold its side of the agreement with the state. Yet, there were real unintended consequences with closing schools, not the least of which are the school climate issues mentioned above. Just the process alone of informing communities that their schools are closing has caused an uproar in every school community facing a closing. Merging schools In the case of Renaissance High School, the school was slated for closure some time ago. In 2015 Renaissance was on the closure list, but was taken off when there was pushback from the school community. The city school board has been sensitive to some of the concerns expressed by community members since the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray, a young Black man who died in police custody in April 2015. At that time, thousands of city residents, including young people, took to the streets protesting police brutality and the conditions that have produced limited opportunities and police violence in Black communities for decades. Even the federal government has felt some sympathy with Baltimore’s communities and Renaissance specifically. Following a stabbing at the school, the US Department of Education gave a grant to Renaissance in September of this year to “recover and to re-establish safe learning environments where all children can focus on getting a great education.” A couple of months later, the CEO announced that the school would close unless it could be relocated. This has posed a new set of problems to resolve.
In many ways this is an example of why urban school reform is so difficult. The policy does not emerge from research and the research does not matter when it comes to decisions that need to be made quickly and with limited resources. That said, strong relationships and trust are central to school success. In so many of the school board hearings about closing schools, students, teachers, and parents have testified how the school is like a family to them and that they have very special relationships within the school community. While some might dismiss this testimony as nothing more than sentimentality, their pleas have been about salvaging the very elements that make school places that work for communities.
What should be done? What is a cash-strapped city to do to create school environments that support students and communities? The first order of business could be to deal with the issues openly and honestly. Explaining the conundrum that the city is in and the role that the 21st century plan plays is important for everyone to understand. Another step could be to have a process for working out what happens to schools when they need to close and/or merge and to have an open and transparent process for decision making, and a set of supports and procedures in place so that schools are not on their own to sort out the climate issues that come from absorbing hundreds of new students. I have seen this first hand and it is very challenging for schools. One idea would be to have smaller academies within the larger schools and teams of teachers (and community partners) that work together to support those students very directly. This would require the central office (along with community partners) to focus much of its efforts on helping school staff do this, but if Baltimore’s schools are going to move forward positively from its school closure dilemma, they may not have a choice.