Parents in Baltimore struggle to keep elementary school open in their neighborhood – WYPR | Team Cansler

Southwest Baltimore parents Krissy Herbet aren’t looking forward to next school year. Because the elementary school in the neighborhood, which two of her children attend, is to be closed in the coming months.

“My kids have lived in Steuart Hill since we moved to Baltimore City. That’s the only school they know of,” Herbert said. “They don’t know any other school, they don’t know any other teachers, they don’t know any other friends.”

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

Sonja Santelisis, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, highlighted the recommendation for the Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School on Broadway East to close during board meeting. That’s because construction conditions weren’t 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 hoped the state would overturn the board’s decision before the end of the school year.

The coalition does not have an attorney but expects to represent itself at a Nov. 21 hearing with an administrative judge from the Maryland State Department of Education.

Nathan Tarter delivered the folder containing the coalition’s appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings.

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

On Wednesday, an administrative judge dismissed the appeal, according to the coalition, which is now returning to the drawing board to decide how to proceed.

The school district cited low enrollment, poor building conditions, and academic performance as the top reasons for all of the closures. For example, Steuart Hill Academic Academy was built in 1969 over a creek that “flows regularly into the classrooms.” according to the county report. The building requires roof, windows, chimney replacement and masonry repairs.

Baltimore City Public Schools District Administrator Angela Alvarez said the practice of closing schools is in the best interests of students — often schools without adequate resources cannot provide quality education that includes arts, music and even physical education.

Alvarez, the executive director of the district’s office for new initiatives, said it’s always a tough decision, but decades of state divestments mean some old buildings are too far away to fix.

“Every child in our city deserves a quality education and a quality building. And we haven’t had that as a system for too long,” Alvarez said.

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

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

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

“We’re still able to do so much,” Riddick said. “I think there is a big advantage in having a small school. And I personally wouldn’t really want to work in a primary school with over 800 students, I really enjoy the small family atmosphere.”

Parishioner Te’Auna Sanders is the guardian of her brother, who is in the 5th grade at Steuart Hill. While her brother is moving 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 consider an alternative.”

Park Heights Academy principal Monica McClain knows what it’s like to transfer from a school that’s been closed by the county. McClain was principal at Edgecombe Circle Primary School until Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary/Middle School and the schools merged in 2020. McClain said she sees 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 the new school colors and mascot, and the cafeteria was named after Dr. named Martin Luther King Jr.

She said: “It definitely needs to be an inclusive process. And no one should feel like they are giving up or leaving anything 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 remain open. And that the district has a pattern of disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods across the city.

Students from all three schools scheduled to close are being reassigned by the district. The majority of Steuart Hill’s students will transfer to Franklin Square Elementary/Middle, which is less than a mile away.

With many students not entitled to transportation services because they live less than a mile away, parents have raised safety concerns that the closure will divert students’ routes to school and many having to cross busy or crime-ridden areas. School officials claim they plan to coordinate with the city’s transportation department to slow traffic and make it safer for pedestrians.

Alvarez, the administrator of Baltimore City public schools, said she understands that closures aren’t easy and during the closure process there are transition teams in place to help the community.

“School communities are going through a grieving process. It’s really tough,” she said. “And they feel really connected because our schools aren’t just buildings, they’re the people who live in them.”

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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 associate 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 as critical social and political spaces alongside places of learning.

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

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

“People are experiencing the closure as some of the latest harm and disrespect they have experienced from the public sector in generations,” she said.

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