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Banneker Blake Academy Protests School Closure

Dominique Maria Bonessi


Parents and faculty from Banneker Blake Academy, a charter school in North Baltimore, gathered in front of city school headquarters Monday to protest the threatened closing of the school next January.

School officials say the academy didn’t meet requirements for renewal of its charter, but advocates argue it goes beyond that.

Tanya Bridges, mother of sixth-grader Calvin Robinson, said Banneker Blake is "the only school that can capture his attention and expand his mind.”

She said the school's science, technology, engineering, arts and math program [STEAM] attracted her and that she doesn't know where to turn for her son’s education if the school closes.

“I don’t know,” said Bridges. “I really don’t know. I know I’m going to have to start all over again searching out schools that I feel is qualified to teach my son.”

Schools CEO Sonja Santelises warned parents in an October letter that that the school is at risk of closing because a report by school officials found a number of problems. That letter followed a meeting in which Santalises said that charter schools face a strict renewal process.

“I will say that our renewal process is probably one of the most thorough anywhere,” she said.

The report by school officials points to multiple issues including the academy being unable to meet the needs of their 49 special education students.

“The school has not had special educator service schedules in place for a significant portion of the 2018 to 2019 school year," the report says. "Without the schedules or other substantial proof of service delivery, the school cannot confirm that students with special needs receive those services.”

The report also found that the school, with only 208 students, does not meet the minimum enrollment requirements.

Carl Stokes, the academy’s founder, says the report that came out of the renewal process is false.

“In their report they tell three or four lies,” said Stokes.

He insists that all special needs students have been receiving services that meet their learning plan requirements. And he says the threat of closing deterred parents from re-enrollment this year.

The academy, opened in 2015, was already in a precarious position after city school officials awarded it a one-year contract last February under the condition that it would make improvements to special education, raise more private money and accurately report grades.

“Parents started talking in July and August and asking us would we be open another year,” said Stokes. “I said, we said, as board members, we don’t have a contract. Sixty parents left the school, a drop of $400,000.”
Stokes says the school complied with city school officials'  measures and increased its private donations from $35,000 in 2017 to more than $100,000 in 2018. In addition, he said, the academy pays $376,000 a year in rent to the school system for its building, while other charter schools pay a dollar a year.

"There’s politics absolutely,” said Stokes, suggesting his friendship with Gov. Larry Hogan irks Santelises.

He argued the school maintains highly effective standardize test scores and should remain open.

“The bottom line is that we are educating black boys in Baltimore City in a way that many other schools are not able to do it,” said Stokes. “ And the CEO has blasted us for our concept, and said that she doesn’t need to support what we’re doing in anyway.”

Marc Steiner, a board member with the school, suggested racism may play a role.

“The difference is that charter schools in this city that [are] drawn up by white people of means and connections to money they survive and they grow,” he said. “Charter schools that are started by black parents and black teachers, and black activists in the city don’t have the same financial support.”

School officials failed to respond to requests for comment. The school board is to vote on the closure Tuesday. 

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