Roots & Branches charter will remain open, but public school closures loom large

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on February 3rd, 2016.
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Last night the Baltimore City school board voted to renew Roots & Branches charter school for another three years. It was a victory for the parents and teachersworking to save their progressive elementary, though many other local schools were not so lucky. In early January the school board voted to close four schools—Westside Elementary School, Baltimore Community High School, Maritime Industries Academy High School, and the Maryland Academy of Technology & Health Sciences, a charter school. These four, plus Roots & Branches School, another charter, were recommended for closure in early November.

“Every time you hit adversity you learn something, and I think we’re going to look at some of how we teach math across the board,” says Anne Rossi, the principal of Roots & Branches, which de-emphasizes testing in favor of an arts-infused curriculum. “I think we want to do some professional development, our math scores were not as good as our reading, but I am really optimistic that we are going to be able to show the district improved scores.”

The school closings come on the heels of a tumultuous year, both within the public school community and Baltimore City more broadly. Westside Elementary is located in Penn North, where the bulk of the Freddie Gray protests took place, and many felt shuttering a civic institution was the very last thing the beleaguered community needed.

“I will plead to you one more time please save Westside Elementary School,” state Del. Antonio Hayes asked the school board in November. “There [are] two major institutions in the Penn North community, that’s Westside Elementary School and a very thriving drug treatment center.” Students who would have enrolled at Westside will merge with students at another renovated school.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, the executive director of New Initiatives for Baltimore City Public Schools, says that when making decisions about school closures, the district thinks about which communities could most benefit from better facilities. “With Westside, I know the community was concerned about divestment, but for me it’s the opposite,” she says. “We’re really investing. Westside is closing because they’re getting a new school—we intentionally prioritized neighborhoods with challenges, so they are getting new buildings first.”

Nearly half of the city’s school buildings were built in the 1960s or earlier, and almost all require extensive repair, renovation, or replacement. According to industry standards, approximately 70 percent of the district’s buildings are considered to be in “poor” condition. And they were constructed at a time when the number of public school students enrolled in the district was much greater—upward of 200,000. Today, with roughly 85,000 public school students, there’s a lot of excess space. (Fewer students also means decreased funding, and the district has had some close calls with misreporting how many students are enrolled in the past.)

In 2010, the ACLU of Maryland published a report outlining the miserable state of Baltimore schools, citing things like damaged windows that don’t open, facility doors that don’t close, and badly lit hallways. “Depending on the season, teachers often struggle to engage drowsy children due to the excessive heat, and faulty boiler systems compel some children to wear coats during class in the winter,” the report stated. “Old lead plumbing has forced City Schools to restrict the use of water fountains and instead provide bottled water.” Decades of social science research has shown how unsafe and inadequate school facilities can negatively affect students’ academic performance—particularly when a school has poor temperature control, poor indoor air quality, and poor lighting.

Though advocates have been paying attention to the deteriorating school facilities for some time, inequitable state policy has made it difficult for leaders to take action. In 2004, the state reported that Baltimore had the greatest need among all Maryland school districts to bring its facilities up to acceptable levels of condition—yet legislators failed to target funding accordingly. Baltimore’s lack of wealth also inhibits it from borrowing money, while suburban districts can incur debt to fund capital improvement projects. So Baltimore not only has the greatest need, but also faces the most difficulty raising money. According to the ACLU, Baltimore’s capital budget “pales in comparison” to other large counties.

Following the report’s release, advocates who had been mobilizing for increased school funding—under the banner of the Baltimore Education Coalition—began to shift gears and focus more specifically on school facilities. The ACLU called for $2.8 billion to fund all the needed repairs and capital improvements. (It later revised this figure to $2.4 billion.) By spring 2011, the Baltimore Education Coalition formally joined the ACLU’s “Transform Baltimore: Build Schools, Build Neighborhoods” campaign, and together they pressured the city and state to pay for school improvements.

Baltimore, which is more dependent on state aid than any other district in Maryland, simply cannot fund enough capital improvements on its own. But state legislators worry about wasteful spending, and are loathe to invest in schools with too few students inside them.

“There is a statewide rule that says that any school building that is less than 60 percent occupied cannot receive state school renovation funds,” says Frank Patinella, an advocate with the ACLU’s Education Reform Project. “Some buildings might have broken boilers and inconsistent heat, but the state does not give money, no matter how poor the condition, if it is an underutilized building.” (“Underutilized” is the controversial term used to describe buildings that are deemed too large for the number of students enrolled. According to the district, Baltimore currently has a 79 percent school utilization rate—and its goal is to ultimately reach 86 percent, through school closures.)

“The state feels particularly strongly about the high number of Baltimore school buildings compared to student population and puts ongoing pressure on City Schools to close more and more buildings,” says Bebe Verdery, the director of the ACLU’s Education Reform Project. “I’ve never been to a hearing in Annapolis in which particular legislators did not rail against Baltimore City schools and the state agencies to require more closures faster.”

Perkins-Cohen says that in order to get state funding, the district had to develop a cohesive plan that indicated which schools would close, which would be renovated, and in what order.

Their efforts succeeded, and by 2013 the legislature passed the Baltimore City Public Schools Construction and Revitalization Act, which allows the state to leverage $1.1 billion in construction costs. This funding enables Baltimore to make headway on its “21st Century Plan“—a commitment to fully renovate or build roughly 50 schools, and to close 26 schools. The state, city, and school district have to each contribute $20 million annually over the next 30 years, though equity advocates say the state should be paying a greater share of these costs.

Many community members have raised concerns with the 21st Century Plan, and question the way it’s being implemented.

According to Jessica Shiller, an urban education professor at Towson University, some communities—like Penn North, Edmonson Village, and Hollins Market—will lose more than 40 percent of their classroom seats from the school closures. These communities all have poverty rates that exceed the citywide average.

“There needs to be an outcry, I take every opportunity I can in school board meetings to tell them they’re doing the wrong thing with these closures,” says Helen Atkinson, the executive director of the Teachers Democracy Project, a local group that engages teachers in public policy issues and social justice.

“One of the main things we find is that mobility is just bad for kids,” says Shiller, who has been doing independent research on school closures. “Moving kids around too much has a negative effect on their academic achievement, and closing a school exacerbates mobility, especially for poor kids.”

Another problem, Shiller notes, is that students often wind up in schools that are worse than the ones they left. Though the 21st Century Plan promises that all kids will attend superior, renovated schools eventually, observers note that children who used to attend the high-performing Langston Hughes Elementary School now attend worse schools, and the displaced students will be shuffled to yet another struggling school during the 2017-2018 school year. In addition, Shiller says kids frequently encounter bullying and violence at their new schools, and teachers are often ill-prepared to handle an influx of new students.

Perkins-Cohen says the district’s long-term plan is to provide professional development to teachers working in merger schools, and to focus on “creating cultures and climates” to help students transition more smoothly.

School closures have become a flashpoint in education reform debates across the country, evoking particularly heated opposition in cities like Newark, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Last year, parents in Chicago led a 34-day hunger strike to save a local high school that was slated for closure. Parents and community organizations have also filed federal civil rights complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that school closures in various cities have had a racially discriminatory impact on poor, black students. In December, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education reached a groundbreaking resolution with Newark Public Schools to help those who may have been negatively impacted by Newark’s closures.

But school closings in Baltimore have not garnered the same kind of mobilized opposition.

Perkins-Cohen says she thinks the politics have played out differently in Baltimore because the district has worked really hard to engage the communities in a thoughtful way. The district’s comprehensive strategy, she says, involves publicizing the 21st Century Plan, making annual school closure announcements several months before the school board votes, organizing robocalls to parents, sending letters home, running ads in newspapers, holding meetings with both teachers and the community, and speaking at school board meetings.

Shiller says her research suggests the public is nowhere near as informed as the district thinks. “While the city did do public forums, they really glossed over this closure information. They said you know we’ll get you wireless internet and air conditioning, and we have to make sure that every school is fully utilized. But the way it was told was to really de-emphasize the closures,” she says. “When I did research it was very clear that it wasn’t communicated very well.”

As of now, it’s unclear what will become of the school buildings that get shut down.

When the district closes down a school, the buildings then return to the city, which owns them. Perkins-Cohen says the city is already thinking about uses for the buildings, in part by asking various city agencies if they might have an interest in the facilities. Sometimes charter operators try to use the newly vacant buildings for their charter schools.

“If you think about it as just a school, then yes it does make sense to close them. Maintaining buildings is hugely expensive, and a city like Baltimore doesn’t have the money to support expenses that are unnecessary,” says Shiller. “But if you think about it from an urban planning perspective, and ask what a school is to a neighborhood, then it’s a very different conversation.” She points out that for many students, schools are where students access food, counseling, after-school programming, and even health care.

Education advocates worry the community won’t have a say in what ultimately happens to these buildings. There are fears that the process will lack transparency, and that buildings may even be left vacant, if nobody wants them. Shiller thinks that right now is a real chance for individuals to speak up with ideas on how to repurpose the buildings, and maybe even figure out new strategies to turn them into hubs of social services.

“The new mayor will be the one really central to making those decisions, and so this leadership change is a really excellent opportunity” for people to get involved in shaping the future, she says. Although some community members tried to save Langston Hughes Elementary School last year, Shiller believes their lack of political capital ultimately crippled the effort. “There were some very inspiring marches, and it got good coverage, but they lacked that political support,” she says. “To stop school closures there really may need to be more aggressive direct action.”

Some wonder whether political capital played a role in helping Roots & Branches to stay open this year. “While I can’t speak to the details of the Roots & Branches case, the fact that it was allowed to stay open adds to the impression that many parents have that charters are treated not just differently, but better,” says Edit Barry, a parent involved inPeople for Public Schools, a new grassroots advocacy group in Baltimore.

Rossi, the principal of Roots & Branches, says the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools did not help them fight their closure recommendation. “I think the charter coalition was understandably cautious and did not throw any weight behind us,” she says. “I don’t know if they didn’t want to show favoritism for us over another charter, or if it’s the [closure] process they wanted to be cautious about protecting, but I will tell you they weren’t part of this effort to save our school.”

Opening up more charters within buildings of closed traditional schools may exacerbate existing tensions between charter advocates and traditional public school parents. Some claim that these closures might even be pretenses for charter school expansions; Atkinson notes that multiple charter operators have been trying to open up schools in communities targeted with school closures, some even angling for the Langston Hughes Elementary School building before it shut down.

“I think people in Baltimore just feel like they will get screwed,” says Shiller. “That’s their go-to feeling—that it’s probably going to be bad—but maybe we can make it a little less bad.”

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