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Baltimore parents fight to keep their neighborhood elementary school open

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Coalition members tabling outside Steuart Academic Academy.

Southwest Baltimore parent Krissy Herbert isn’t looking forward to next school year. That’s because the neighborhood elementary school where two of her children attend is slated to close in the coming months.

“My children have been at Steuart Hill since we moved to Baltimore City. That's the only school that they know,” Herbert said. “They know no other school they know no other teachers they know no other friends.”

Baltimore City Public School leaders have closed two dozen schools in the past eight years, but one community in southwest Baltimore is fighting an uphill battle to keep the doors open. In January, Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners voted 8-1 to close three schools: Steuart Hill Academic Academy, Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School, New Era Academy.

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelisis rescinded the recommendation for Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School in Broadway East to shutter during the board meeting. That's because the building condition was not as severe compared to the other schools and community members asked for more time to improve enrollment numbers.

Herbert is part of a coalition of parents and community members in the Union Square neighborhood who were hoping the state would overrule the board’s decision before the end of the school year.

The coalition does not have an attorney but instead expected to represent themselves in a hearing on Nov. 21 with an administrative law judge from the Maryland State Department of Education.

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Nathan Tarter delivered the binder of the coalition's appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings.

But the Baltimore City Public School District filed a motion with the state to quash the case.

On Wednesday, an administrative law judge dismissed the appeal, according to the coalition which is now heading back to the drawing board to decide how to move forward.

The school district pointed to low enrollment, poor building conditions and academic performance as primary reasons for all the closures. For example, Steuart Hill Academic Academy was built in 1969 over a stream that “periodically floods into the school spaces”, according to a district report. The building needs roof, windows, chimney replacement and masonry repairs.

Baltimore City Public Schools district administrator Angela Alvarez said that the practice of school closures is in the students’ best interest — often schools without sufficient resources can’t provide quality education that includes art, music and even physical education.

Alvarez, the executive director of the office of new initiatives at the district, said it’s always a difficult decision but decades of disinvestment by the state means some old buildings are too far gone to be repaired.

“Every child in our city deserves to have a high-quality education and be in a high-quality building. And for too long we have not had that as a system,” Alvarez said.

In 2017, there were 275 students at Steuart Hill Academic Academy which has steadily decreased each school year to 193 as of 2021. The school’s student capacity is 311. There are 28 employees at the school, 16 of whom are educators.

Julie Riddick teaches first-grade at the school. Riddick said that staff members went door-to-door in the nearby neighborhoods to boost enrollment in 2019 but that was halted since the coronavirus pandemic forced students to take online classes.

While the district argued that a small school prevents students from access to more resources, there’s a positive side to staying small.

“We are still able to do so much,” Riddick said. “I think that there is a huge benefit in having a small school. And I personally wouldn't really want to work in an elementary middle where there's like 800 plus students, I really enjoy the small family-like atmosphere.”

Community member Te’Auna Sanders is the guardian of her brother who is in 5th grade at Steuart Hill. While her brother will be moving on to middle school next year, she still wants to keep Steuart Hill open in her neighborhood.

Sanders said she wanted the board to understand the passion of the neighborhood and “be willing to take the time to think of an alternative.”

Monica McClain, principal of Park Heights Academy, knows what happens after schools are merged.

McClain was principal at Edgecombe Circle Elementary School until Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary/Middle School and the schools merged in 2020. McClain said she saw more resources at her new school. She was able to offer more classes, hire more teachers, build a new playground and install a new heating and cooling system.

McClain found ways to honor the closed school and create a new school identity.

Students voted on new school colors, mascot and the cafeteria was named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

She said "it should absolutely be an inclusive process. And no one should feel like they're giving up anything or leaving something behind.”

The Steuart Academic Academy coalition’s appeal argues that the school board's decision is arbitrary under the Code of Maryland Regulations and the school should stay open. And that the district has a pattern of disinvesting in low income neighborhoods across the city.

Students at all three schools slated to close will be reassigned by the district. The majority of Steuart Hill students will transfer to Franklin Square Elementary/Middle, which is less than a mile away.

Since many students are ineligible for transportation services because they live less than a mile away, parents have raised safety concerns about the closure rerouting students' walk to school and requiring many to cross high-traffic or crime areas. School officials claim they plan to coordinate with the city’s transportation department to slow down traffic and make it safer for pedestrians.

Baltimore City Public Schools administrator Alvarez said she understands that closures are not easy and there are transition teams during the closure process to help the community.

“School communities go through a grieving process. It's really tough,” she said. “And they feel really closely connected because our schools are not just buildings, it's the people that's in there.”

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Zshekinah Collier
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Steuart Hill Academic Academy.

When communities lose an asset like a school, it can be a difficult transition, said Ariel Bierbaum, assistant professor of urban studies and planning and affiliate faculty at the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland.

Bierbaum’s research focuses on the impact of school closures and the importance of schools being critical social and political spaces in addition to places of learning.

“We're losing a venue that can help mitigate the marginalization of many families, and neighborhood groups that are systematically otherwise marginalized from political and policymaking processes,” she said.

When schools close, the district loses some trust with the community, she said.

“People experience the closure as one of the latest harms, and acts of disrespect, that they have experienced at the hands of the public sector for generations,” she said.

Zshekinah Collier is WYPR’s 2022-2023 Report for America Corps Member, where she covers Education.