Faith leaders and activists in four Baltimore neighborhoods are opposing plans to close four public schools as early as this summer, calling them important anchors in struggling communities.
The school system announced a proposal in November to close three elementary schools with low enrollments in summer 2022 and a high school in 2023.
The elementary schools are Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School in East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood, Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary on Eutaw Place in West Baltimore and Steuart Hill Academic Academy in Union Square in the Central Southwest area of the city. The high school is New Era Academy in South Baltimore.
A city school board vote, expected to take place Tuesday, has been rescheduled for Jan. 25 for the elementary schools. Advocates at first asked for the closures to be voted on a year from now, but they are now seeking a two year delay. It is unclear whether the closures will be approved.
The school closing proposal is part of an attempt to make the schools operate more efficiently by eliminating ones with low enrollments as the city’s population and public school enrollment has shrunk over the decades.
In the past decade, the system has closed dozens of schools while investing about $1 billion in 28 new or completely renovated schools, including Patterson High School, Frederick Elementary School and Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School.
The schools targeted to close all have seen enrollment declines over the past five years and need major repairs, and the city has run out of funding to fix them.
“We have schools that are severely undersized,” said Angela Alvarez, executive director of the school district’s Office of New Initiatives.
For instance, Steuart Hill in Union Square has 187 students for a school designed for 311; Eutaw Marshburn in Madison Park has 248 students in a school that could handle 358.
Alvarez said the schools that students would be transferred to are also under-enrolled, but in better condition. Small schools, she said, aren’t able to offer as much music and art nor as many field trips and after-school activities as larger schools are.
But opponents point to the city school system’s failure to invest in these schools over the years as a reason for the declining enrollment, even as some communities have undergone a renaissance. In the Oliver community around Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary, the neighborhood has seen its population grow, according to Sean Closkey, president of ReBUILD Metro, a nonprofit organization that is attempting to revitalize parts of East Baltimore.
Activists like Closkey are asking the school system to delay its decision for a year, arguing that the school board vote comes only two months after the proposal was released.
“I think that as you are rebuilding the neighborhood having good assets like a good school is critical,” Closkey said.
Vacant houses are now inhabited and new apartments are under construction, he said.
Working with TRF Development Partners, ReBUILD Metro has invested millions of dollars to renovate 200 homes in the area, said Calvin Keene, pastor at Memorial Baptist Church and a leader in ReBUILD Metro.
“I don’t know if they took that into consideration,” Keene said of school system leaders.
Certain sections of Oliver have seen a 40% increase in the population and a significant decrease in crime, Closkey said. Although some of the redevelopment has occurred outside the school’s boundaries, that redevelopment has been moving toward the school and will result in more families living in houses in the area where students are assigned to the school, he said.
Closing the school in the midst of the successful redevelopment will not help the community continue to grow, Closkey said.
Lillian Trotman, who lives in the area, said the nearby Johnston Square Elementary School community was not asked about whether it wanted additional students or what resources should be provided to help students and teachers if a transition occurs.
“To me, it is too fast and too soon,” she said. “There should have been more community involvement before you just close the school.”
Over the years, key programs such as Child First, a nonprofit group that provides supports such as after-school programs to schools, were moved to another school, a sign of the disinvestment, Trotman said.
In Southwest Baltimore, George A. Hopkins Jr., the pastor of SOWEBO Community Church, said his church raised $20,000 to redo Steuart Hill’s auditorium, outfitting it with a sound system and new carpets. In addition, the community just completed work on an updated teachers lounge last fall. He agrees with the city’s assessment that the school needs renovations.
“We have been doing the financial work to improve it. We would rather them partner with us to make it better,” he said. “Our kids do deserve a better building, but we believe the district should have been investing in that building a long time ago.”
Hopkins is requesting the school system delay making a decision and engage the community in solutions that would benefit the children.
Both Hopkins and Keene say young children will be walking farther, sometimes crossing busy streets like North Avenue or Pennsylvania Avenue by themselves, and past corners where people loiter and deal drugs.
“We move people rather than move the resource to where they live,” said Hopkins, whose church met in the school before the pandemic.
For Te’Auna Sanders, Steuart Hill was a lifeline during a difficult time. In 2020, the 23-year-old took in her younger brother Tyler, who lived in West Virginia at the time, after his mother experienced health issues.
“The transition was extremely chaotic and very fast,” she said. “But having Steuart Hill so close by — we’re just half a block away from it — and the support of the teachers and neighbors made the transition a lot easier.”
There was the secretary who helped Sanders register her brother for school. And there was the third grade teacher who helped Tyler adjust to virtual learning in a new city, and who checked in with the family whenever he could. Losing that would disrupt Tyler’s schooling once more, Sanders said.
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“I could imagine that having to change schools and move again would be really hurtful for him,” said Sanders, who’s among the parents and guardians pushing for a two-year delay on the school board vote.
Closing the school could disrupt the entire neighborhood, she said. A community space would be lost, families may move away and new families may not seek out the neighborhood without Steuart Hill nearby.
“This is kind of the process or trajectory of a lot of displacement of poor and Black families in our neighborhood,” she said.
On Eutaw Place, where Eutaw-Marshburn is located, the nonprofit organization No Boundaries Coalition has been working with the community to improve the neighborhood and build partnerships with nearby institutions. A new community arts center is set to open soon and Pedestal Gardens, an apartment building, is undergoing renovations.
“What is important here is the ongoing work in the community to build up relationships in historically divided communities,” said the Rev. Grey Maggiano, rector of Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill. “The city has come in without any cognizance of any of that.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Condon contributed to this story.