Category Archives: School Closings

Telling old stories: Recalling the fallout from school closure

Cities change all of the time, but when neighborhoods change, displacement often follows. People have to move out of their homes, and institutions, like schools, close. History gets lost. A piece of history gets left behind, staying on only in the memories of people who lived through that period.Eastern high

Bill Bleisch, longtime teacher from Baltimore, recalls what gets lost when schools get closed, communities of students moved, and institutions get replaced:

“There have been many closings, over many years – not just the recent ones – ever since the student population of the Baltimore City Public Schools became majority Black in the 1970s.

In the 80’s, for example, it was announced that Eastern High School would be closed, as of June, 1985. The official rationale was that there were too few students, citywide, in the high school grades and that Eastern (built with the same architectural design as Douglass, which had by then been renovated) was the city’s oldest un-renovated high school.

They neglected to talk about how part of the land was wanted – and indeed later asphalted – for baseball parking, after the Orioles won the World Series in ’83, and phenomenal traffic came to Waverly, with more expected.

We knew that a certain percentage of our students would end up dropping out, amidst a re-assignment to what would be called Lake Clifton/Eastern, farther away from their homes.

A huge protest was organized. The preparations were heartwarming and highly impressive. Teaching at Eastern at the time, I could go to a teacher and ask, “How would you feel about organizing the cooking of a hundred chickens, so we can feed several hundred students after school before we march to the School Board?” and the answer would be, “No problem!”  The same was true about asking folks to bring in enough materials to make hundreds of posters.

On our march from Eastern to the School Board, after the in-school dinner, a couple of opportunist politicians jumped in front of the march, and pretended they had been organizing and leading the struggle all along.

Outside the School Board, we had perhaps the largest demonstration I had ever seen there, totally surrounding the building while picketing.

Then, inside, we dramatically unrolled hundreds of petitions, taped end-to-end with what must have been thousands of signatures opposing the closing, complemented by our spokespersons.

In the end, we won a little. We succeeded in keeping the school open for one more year, and we won a commitment that Eastern’s business program (teaching office skills, not training students to want to be capitalist exploiters) would be kept alive, long term, at Lake Clifton/Eastern.

At the end of the next and final year of Eastern’s existence, our seniors had their traditional Farewell Assembly, except on this occasion, all of us – not just the seniors – were saying farewell to the school. There was barely a dry eye in the auditorium.

On Eastern’s large, beautiful grounds (only part of which remain), 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 City Public School teacher for nearly 50 years.

When Eastern closed, this large statue was moved to the Lake Clifton/Eastern campus.

On the occasion of a Lake Clifton/Eastern assembly to acknowledge the statue and its new site, I ended up being the one to say a few words.

Well, I chose – at the assembly – to tell a story about a student of mine who had come on one of the large, three-day, end-of-the-year, camping trips. On that year’s trip, we had learned a lot about revolutionary politics, and had also had a lot of fun but, on the way back home, when we got to this student’s street, he became even happier, smiled broadly, looked with fresh eyes at his block, part of a neighborhood where residents didn’t earn big wages, and – to an outsider – the homes appeared run down, not particularly desirable, and he exclaimed, “Isn’t it beautiful!” expressing the joy of being re-united with the family he loved and the place where they cherished one another, emotions about which Reese had indeed written and Turnbull had chiseled.

Well, after not very many years at Lake, more powerful forces chose to expropriate the Reese/Turnbull statue, move it back to the former Eastern complex, and use it to give a bit of false legitimacy to the now Hopkins-appropriated building on 33rd Street.

Somehow, I don’t think the theme of transcending tears by regaining our losses – as represented through the visual metaphor of sheep being shepherded back home – is quite apt for Johns Hopkins, an institution that has displaced hundreds of families’ from their homes, has a tiny percentage of African American faculty in a majority-Black city, and wouldn’t allow a single Black student into its medical school for the first 70 years of that institution’s inglorious history.”

But that is what happens when schools are closed. Things get moved around. The story changes, and memories fade. We need to remember the story of Eastern and the story of Lake Clifton. We need to remember what these schools meant to students, families, and teachers.

School privatization: Baltimore style

KIPP

A new report from a major foundation in Baltimore recently came out with a report that urges Maryland to change its law so that private operators can come in and improve academic outcomes for urban kids. The report claims that underperformance can be improved by operators with a “track record of success” in other cities. Opening up city schools to charter operators is not new. Lots of cities have done that, without success. Private operators run their schools without much accountability and oversight, providing in

many cases a lower quality education than the public school may have.

No need to retread old territory here. We have enough studies that show charters do not outperform public schools. So, why all of a sudden does Baltimore want to try its hand at a strategy that has not worked elsewhere?

Charter

The charter push was made public very recently, just after the Baltimore announced the closure of 26 closing schools. Its budget is shrinking, enrollment declining, and there are few dollars to support the system it has. What’s the solution? Privatization. The new governor has proposed charter schools to save Baltimore from poor academic performance. They have their own operating funds, especially the nationally franchised charters like KIPP. Schools closing, charters taking over. Sounds all too familiar, a story out of Philadelphia or Chicago on the privatization of their schools.

Importing failed policy from other cities is not only a bad idea but one that shows a lack of innovation and faith in Baltimore itself to generate better schools. The solution to chronic underperformance in schools is not as easy as the fans of outsourcing would like to make it sound. Baltimore’s schools serve large numbers of students who live in poverty. Anywhere from 30%-50% of Baltimore’s students live below the poverty line. Since income is the most reliable predictor of academic achievement, schools that serve students in poverty would likely have academic struggles. The solution? Help communities in poverty. There are folks trying to do this through the development of community schools to provide services like physical and mental health clinics, food pantries, and classes for adults.

Privately operated charters may improve test scores, but they will not improve communities. There is more to improving urban education that bumping up reading and math scores. Schools are a public good. When we improve them for the people living in the communities that they serve, then we improve more than test scores. We make a community livelier and better to live in.

Why is Baltimore closing schools?

This interactive map shows public schools in Baltimore. Schools designated for closure under the 21st Century Plan are identified by large red markers; other schools have blue markers. By clicking on the marker of any school, you can view census data about the neighborhood in which the school sits.

Baltimore City has embarked on a 21st century plan for its schools which entails, among other things, closing 26 of its public schools over the next few years. By closing schools, the system’s leaders say they will be able to do renovations and improvements to the rest of the schools in the system. On the face of it, it sounds like a good strategy- close a few schools and renovate others.The city school leaders say closing schools can cut costs, but according to research, there is little evidence to show that school closings would improve education for children and students attending the closing schools would likely attend schools no better than the ones they had attended. Meanwhile, closing schools may not even save money. An audit of school closings in Washington, D.C., schools showed closures costing, rather than saving the district money.  City school leaders say school closures are meant to improve school choice options, but we know that better schools are not guaranteed from new schools alone and, more importantly, they hurt low-income communities by closing anchor institutions that provide schooling as well as a host of counseling services and after school programs for youth in the community.

Under the plan more than 8,000 – almost 10% – of Baltimore’s classroom seats will be affected by closures. But some communities will be affected much more than others. For example, a few communities* will lose more than 40% of their classroom seats under the 21st Century plan. In these communities, the average rate of poverty is more than 50%, compared to the citywide average of 32%. This analysis highlights an all-too-familiar phenomenon: school closures are concentrated in communities with high rates of poverty, placing additional burdens on families that already lack resources and access to public services.

*Poppleton/ The Terraces/ Hollins Market, Highlandtown, Edmondson Village, Penn North/ Reservoir Hill

City school leaders say that the schools that are closing because of under-utilization. The State, which is the largest source of funding for education and school facility improvements, has mandated that the city close schools due to “excess space.” They claim that the city has lost tens of thousands of students of recent decades and thus, there are a ton of empty seats in these school buildings. But school buildings can serve as a community anchor, with a myriad of useful programs co-located in the building. On the school site, there can be social services, job-training programs, daycares, health centers, or even businesses. All of these things should be strategically integrated into school program to help kids and families to succeed.

Another reason that has been given for school closure is that the schools are underperforming. This is based on test score data that they collect, but we know that single largest determinant of test scores is family income not schools. So, in essence, this plan will end up punishing the city’s poorest communities by shuddering their schools. The school closure phenomenon is not unique to Baltimore. School closure is a strategy borrowed from cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Detroit, where massive numbers of public schools have closed. The results in those cities have been disastrous. In Chicago, 47 schools closed.  In Philadelphia, 23 schools closed, leaving 3000 school staff out of work. The schools opened this year without school aides, librarians, gym, art and music. There were no school secretaries. The state has not come into help Philadelphia schools but has invested in building a $400 million prison. So, research and experience from other cities tells us that school closure is not a winning strategy.

Why is Baltimore closing schools?

This interactive map shows public schools in Baltimore. Schools designated for closure under the 21st Century Plan are identified by large red markers; other schools have blue markers. By clicking on the marker of any school, you can view census data about the neighborhood in which the school sits.

Baltimore City has embarked on a 21st century plan for its schools which entails, among other things, closing 26 of its public schools over the next few years. By closing schools, the system’s leaders say they will be able to do renovations and improvements to the rest of the schools in the system. On the face of it, it sounds like a good strategy- close a few schools and renovate others.The city school leaders say closing schools can cut costs, but according to research, there is little evidence to show that school closings would improve education for children and students attending the closing schools would likely attend schools no better than the ones they had attended. Meanwhile, closing schools may not even save money. An audit of school closings in Washington, D.C., schools showed closures costing, rather than saving the district money.  City school leaders say school closures are meant to improve school choice options, but we know that better schools are not guaranteed from new schools alone and, more importantly, they hurt low-income communities by closing anchor institutions that provide schooling as well as a host of counseling services and after school programs for youth in the community.

Under the plan more than 8,000 – almost 10% – of Baltimore’s classroom seats will be affected by closures. But some communities will be affected much more than others. For example, a few communities* will lose more than 40% of their classroom seats under the 21st Century plan. In these communities, the average rate of poverty is more than 50%, compared to the citywide average of 32%. This analysis highlights an all-too-familiar phenomenon: school closures are concentrated in communities with high rates of poverty, placing additional burdens on families that already lack resources and access to public services.

*Poppleton/ The Terraces/ Hollins Market, Highlandtown, Edmondson Village, Penn North/ Reservoir Hill

City school leaders say that the schools that are closing because they are underperforming. This is based on test score data that they collect, but we know that single largest determinant of test scores is family income not schools. So, in essence, this plan will end up punishing the city’s poorest communities by shuddering their schools. The school closure phenomenon is not unique to Baltimore. School closure is a strategy borrowed from cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Detroit, where massive numbers of public schools have closed. The results in those cities have been disastrous. In Chicago, 47 schools closed.  In Philadelphia, 23 schools closed, leaving 3000 school staff out of work. The schools opened this year without school aides, librarians, gym, art and music. There were no school secretaries. The state has not come into help Philadelphia schools but has invested in building a $400 million prison. So, research and experience from other cities tells us that school closure is not a winning strategy.

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