LOSING LANGSTON HUGHES
“This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.”
–Langston Hughes, “Kids Who Die”
Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, our nation’s historic and continuing segregationand neglect of predominantly Black schools and school districts has gained a new level of attention. We know about schools in Ferguson, Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore. The question we are now faced with is what to do about it, and the search for answers is urgent. This spring, the city of Baltimore broke under the weight of years of police abuse and institutional racism, reflected in part through systematically under-funded schools.
What has changed since the uprising that took place after the funeral of the murdered Freddie Gray? For one West Baltimore community losing a beloved elementary school the answer seems to be, “Not much.”
When Langston Hughes Elementary School was built in 1975, it was celebrated as the foundation of the community’s future, a new investment in a community devastated in the riots of 1968.
This summer, Baltimore City Schools successfully defeated the Langston Hughes Community Action Association’s desperate attempt to keep their school open.
As Baltimore vacates an elementary school, with devastating consequences for West Baltimore families, we are reminded of the words of west-side resident Aisha Snead, who in April told The New York Times, “This is the land that time forgot.”
“They have never invested in the people. In fact, it’s divested. They take every red cent they can from poor Black people and put it into the Inner Harbor.”
Langston Hughes was selected as one of several schools slated for closing in January 2013 despite the fact that the students have been meeting assessment benchmarks; despite the presence of community support and involvement; despite having a well-maintained building in good repair; and despite the deplorable condition of the school the students are being sent into. No one has put forward a coherent and credible reason for this drastic decision other than a political need to reduce the number of school buildings in the city.
Identifying school buildings for closure was a concession made to the state in order to receive facility improvement funds for City Schools. A June 26, 2015, letter from City Schools CEO Gregory Thornton to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, written after the Park Heights community made it plain they wanted their school to stay open, describes the prevailing rationale succinctly: “Langston Hughes Elementary was identified as a program closure in the original 10-year plan as an opportunity to consolidate programs to reduce City School’s building inventory.”
At a rally this spring to save Langston Hughes, Baltimore Algebra Project coordinator Antwain Jordan reflected on the reason Park Heights resident George Mitchell gives for the fate of the school:
“He believes that they picked this school and these communities because this was a path of least resistance,” Jordan said.
“Essentially, that no one cares. But from my experience in this community in the last weeks and months, that’s the exact opposite of what I see. I see a lot of resistance.… If they thought this was the path of least resistance, then they chose the wrong road.”
But the resistance—some of which has been documented by the Baltimore Brew, the Baltimore Sun and in a video by the Teachers’ Democracy Project was not enough. The phone calls, petitions, cook outs, marches, meetings, and school board testimony were not enough to change a political structure that continues to place a lesser value on some neighborhoods than on others, less value on some children than on others.
One explanation for why Langston Hughes was supposed to be a “path of least resistance” is that this subversion of democracy would be harder to sell for a school in a somewhat wealthier neighborhood serving even a small percentage of white children.
Abbottston Elementary, a school of a similar size, demographics and assessment history, but located closer to more “desirable” neighborhoods and in close proximity to the recently renovated and, therefore more attractive Waverly Elementary, was saved from the chopping block.
The fight to keep Abbottston open was fueled by interests similar to the residents of Park Heights: saving their neighborhood school. But the neighborhoods are not the same. Saving Abbottston, instead of sending Abbottston’s children into Waverly, also meant keeping Waverly seats open for new and prospective white and middle-class neighbors attracted by the new building. All this is understandable from an individual, parent-as-activist point of view. Yet the case of Abbottston stands as a perfect example of how the political process systematically favors schools with even a small minority of privileged students who bring valuable political connections. The school closing announcements were made simultaneously. Abbottston got a reprieve; Langston Hughes did not.
City leaders are sensitive to the inequity they have created in saving Abbottston and dumping Langston Hughes – a fact reflected in Dr. Thornton’s letter to the mayor cited above when he writes, “… the district remains committed to evaluating the viability of various school closures, including Abbottston,” implying that Abbottston may ultimately be closed as well.
The second reason that Langston Hughes became easy prey is its small size. City Schools documents claim Langston Hughes is closing because its enrollment is too small to support a school. Langston Hughes had an enrollment of 217 children in 2013, and then dropped to 156 the following year after the closing announcement. Last year, Langston Hughes was the seventh smallest school in the city at 176 kids, excluding schools designated for students with disabilities. Five of the ten smallest schools in Baltimore are charter schools. Of the remaining five non-charters, four have been recommended for closing, including Abbottston. The three smallest schools in Baltimore are all charters, and all three – Montessori Middle School (88 students), Independence (127 students), and The Green School (150 students) – have a student population that is over 40 percent white.
The 10th and 11th smallest schools in the city are the highly-celebrated City Neighbors Charter School and City Neighbors Hamilton. These two charters each have an enrollment of 216, one below Langston Hughes’ 2013 number. These small schools also serve a student population more white (43 and 36 percent) and less poor (37.5 and 48.1 percent FARMS-eligible) than most city schools.
One of several reports submitted to the Maryland State Department of Education on June 30, 2015, as part of the ongoing Study of Adequacy of Funding for Education focused on the impact of small schools. The report states, “It is also critical to note that research shows smaller schools and smaller learning environments have an even more pronounced effect on children from low-income families…. Indeed, in addition to improved grades and standardized test scores, low-income elementary-aged students attending small schools have better attendance, fewer behavior problems, and increased participation in extracurricular programs compared to low-income students in larger schools.”
This year, City Schools is closing a small Black elementary school with a student population 96 percent eligible for free and reduced meals because the school is “too small,” while continuing to support smaller and equally small, less poor, schools with the largest percentages of white students in the city.
We do not believe any of these schools should be closed – we believe Langston Hughes should remain open. We do not believe it is the intention of Baltimore City Schools to create separate and unequal schools, but that is what they are doing.
The third reason Langston Hughes was targeted for closing is likely an unmet demand for well-kept, ready-to-use school buildings for charters. During the past school year at least two white-led charter schools expressed interest in taking over the Langston Hughes building once it was vacated. They had received a list of “available buildings” from the facilities department at City Schools. The question of whether such a move would satisfy the system’s stated need to “reduce City Schools’ building inventory” has been delayed as both charters changed course after hearing the outcry from the Park Heights neighborhood. The charter operators’ reaction to the community was politically correct and laudable, but their original plan to move into a turn-key building had to involve some incorrect assumptions about the worth and value of the existing Langston Hughes school community. What the children of the Park Heights community need is the stability and predictability guaranteed by democratic community control. They need their school that serves their neighborhood.
Ultimately, the real story behind why City Schools picked Langston Hughes for closing is, we strongly suspect, an amalgam of the first three reasons cited above with an additional factor that binds them together – the opaque and well-financed “development plans” for the Pimlico and Park Heights areas. Do plans for a “redeveloped” neighborhood include a school building with which to attract a charter operator to serve a gentrifying population? If so, then an empty Langston Hughes building would be highly convenient. In other cities, charters and gentrification have often gone hand-in-hand.
School closures are a national phenomenon. The stated reasons for closing Baltimore schools are the same reasons being used to close schools in cities across the country. But as groups such as the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign have pointed out, “You can’t improve schools by closing them.” Schools deemed to be “underutilized” are not empty. School closings disrupt whole communities. Children pushed from closing schools generally do not end up in better schools, and school districts often realize no significant financial benefit from closing schools.
We believe no one has set out to underserve our lowest-income, lowest-wealth Black families. It just happens, repeatedly, because our structures of institutional racism and neglect continue to churn until someone decides to stop them. The Black Lives Matter movement has risen as both a cry of anger and a hopeful challenge to these structures. Mayor Rawlings-Blake, Dr. Thornton, and the Baltimore City School Board have turned away from this movement and from the Park Heights community in a way that is disheartening for those of us who want to believe our leaders learned something from April. We want our public schools to have something to do with democracy. We know there are more schools that will be next on the block. We are demanding more than disinvestment and neglect, and we are particularly suspicious of school closings in areas with plans for gentrification. We want more than “input” regarding decisions that have already been made behind closed doors. There are other, more sustainable, and publicly controlled options for on-going use of our anchoring neighborhood buildings and institutions. We need active community control of our schools.
Helen Atkinson, Director, Teachers’ Democracy Project, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ben Dalbey, Parent of two Baltimore City school children, email@example.com