The Baltimore City school system is spending $1 billion to update and renovate nearly two dozen overcrowded and outdated schools as part of the 21st Century Schools Building Plan. But closing schools and buildings and moving students, no matter the goal, is not easy, especially for communities that have lost many of their public institutions over the years.
Marvin Walker’s daughter attends Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary School in a Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of vacant homes and broken sidewalks. It’s a school that’s slated to close and its students are to move to nearby Frederick Elementary, which is being modernized to accommodate more students under the system’s 21st Century School Building Plan.
But Walker wonders “why take from this school and put whatever amount money – a million, a billion – you’re putting into Frederick but you’re not willing to take some money and put into this school.”
Walker and several other Morse parents went to the school board last week. They said they had not been consulted about the closing, and they worried about the safety of students.
“Children having to walk from this neighborhood to a total different neighborhood and in between they have to travel through things they wouldn’t normally have to see or experience early in the morning to get to school,” Walker explained.
He also said he’s worried that students from different neighborhoods might not get along.
“Because I’m from this block and you’re from that block we have a problem, or I’m from this school and you're from that school we have a problem.”
It’s something he experienced first-hand growing up, he said.
“And I don’t think these children will be too accepting of these other elementary kids coming to their school.”
Dr. David Lever, the executive director of the state’s Interagency Committee on School Construction, acknowledged that closing schools and moving students around is painful, but he said the city can save a lot of money by using school space more efficiently.
“We know how difficult this process can be, but I think we have to keep the bigger goal in mind – which is the improvement,” he said.
That means better facilities, improved conditions for teachers and more programming in newly consolidated schools.
Mignon Anthony, executive director of the 21st Century program, said the program’s aggressive pace—dozens of schools in less than 5 years—means community outreach is a major challenge.
“I think the tight timeframe is the issue with the 21st century program,” she said. “It includes a significant amount of community meetings, input, workshops [and] student involvement. A lot of involvement with principals, and we’re doing that.”
But Mike Haynie was angered about the process around the eventual closing of Northwestern High School.
“You want transparency; you want us to work with you but it’s all one way,” he said at a 21st Century meeting at Northwestern near Pikesville in late May.
Under the plan, Forest Park High School students would move into Northwestern, which is less than half full, while their school is being renovated. The students would then move back to Forest Park. And Northwestern would eventually close.
Haynie, a Northwestern graduate and member of the school’s advisory board, said school officials waited until the last minute to explain their plans.
“When are we gonna work together and collaborate together on an implementation plan without you stuffing it down our throat like you said you’re gonna do?” he asked.
The tight timeframe of the process is in part a reflection of the condition of the schools and the cost to repair them. Lever said the new schools are being designed to not just open and close with the school bell but to incorporate social, civic and recreation services for the community.
“Every single project in the 21st century school program will have those kinds of facilities within them,” he said. School officials have put “a lot of thought and attention that goes into defining the programs and the spaces that will be occupied by those programs.”
And that’s something that directly impacts the city’s neighborhoods and the kids who live in them.