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  December 8, 2017

The Argument for Closing Low-Enrollment Schools is Wrong, Advocates Say

As Baltimore faces another round of school closings, parents and educators argue small schools are actually the best way to address entrenched poverty and other social ills
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TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. Another round of school closures raises the question: What is the future of public education in Baltimore?

CROWD: Hands off our schools now!

TAYA GRAHAM: The concerns outside Baltimore's school headquarters were familiar. Students and parents protesting a proposal that would shutter another seven schools.

MS. WYNN: Now, this is the second merge I've been in, and it's the same thing, and we, like she said, we need the community- they need they need to come to the community and see what the community has to say.

TAYA GRAHAM: Among them, William Pinderhughes, Cold Stream Park Elementary, Friendship Academy of Engineering & Technology, and the Knowledge and Success Academy. The closures are part of a plan to revitalize Baltimore's aging school buildings. A state study called the Jacobs Report found some 85 percent of the city's schools are in poor or very poor shape. The school system's 21st century plan of 2010 aimed to renovate or close some two dozen schools. A move school officials say is the result of a decline in the city's student population, and a disproportionate number of the schools with low enrollment that were driving up costs.

BILL FURGUSON: We have, by far, the most number of schools with 350 or less students across the state. When you look at Baltimore City, I think we're at 183 programs, somewhere around 15 to 20 percent of those programs are small schools with 350 or less students. Other jurisdictions don't have that challenge.

TAYA GRAHAM: But for parents and students who attended, there was a different story.

Speaker 5: Baltimore City Public School System's answer is to close, scuttle the data and disrupt the student body. Unfortunately, it is more of the same from a system itself that is overwhelmed, underperformed, and in need of change.

TAYA GRAHAM: For students, the intimacy of smaller classes was a benefit.

KIESHA WEGNER: I love the school that I attend and this is why. I'm in foster care, and the staff helped me get a winter coat and they gave me food. Being a foster child is hard because I don't feel like a normal kid. Here at Independence, they make me feel welcome and also normal. Another reason why I love my school would be because it's not a large environment.

TAYA GRAHAM: And the relationships they had built with teachers and classmates, invaluable.

SEAN DAVIS: When I first came to Independence, I felt very welcome with this small size. I'm the type of student whereas though I need my one-on-one help, so if Independence gets shut down, I don't know what people like me would do with the one-on-one help.

TAYA GRAHAM: And for the parents, there were questions. Why is Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested, being targeted a second time in nearly a decade for a school closure?

TIASHA HURREL: Our community need more help, and that stuff's taken away from ourself, put into our community. That's why there's so much violence, that's why so many fighting and different crime, that's why in our community, it's a crime rate, because nobody shows that they care.

TAYA GRAHAM: And why isn't the community being included in the process?

REV. C.D. WITHERSPOON: It's the first thing they did after that uprising, was to remodel Western District Police Station. That to us is an insult, particularly the way that Freddie Gray died, and then the second they want to do is now to propose a school closing of William Pinderhughes, and we find that to be unacceptable, we find it to be a part of the culture of that investment that proliferates this city, and urban communities, as opposed to it not happening in Roland Park, Guilford and Mt. Winans, and then the more affluent neighborhoods, but we're gonna show the entire city that poor and working class people can fight back.

TAYA GRAHAM: At a school board meeting, school officials had little to say. Towson University education professor, Jessica Shiller, says the analysis that low-enrollment schools need to be closed doesn't consider it the positive impacts of educational institutions.

JESSICA SHILLER: Now the city's also citing the fact that the schools are under-enrolled, the ones that they're closing, and these are small schools, and we know, and I personally have done a lot of research over the years on small schools in particular, and small schools really benefit low-income kids the most because of the personal relationships they're able to create between to teacher and student, that has a tremendous effect on their learning and their academic achievement, and in terms of costs, the city has said small schools cost a lot of money, and they do cost more money. What they also do though, in the end, is graduate more students. So the cost is actually outweighed by the gains that students make later on in terms of graduation. They don't have to remediate as much, they don't have to deal with students dropping out and explaining that on their roles and actually, and setting up alternative programs for students that can't make it through. So in the end, it's actually not saving them a whole lot of money.

TAYA GRAHAM: Or the effect of forcing students to change schools, particularly in areas afflicted with entrenched poverty and violence. We asked for comment, and they gave us this written statement: "For now, school board officials say the final vote on the closures will be held Dec. 19." Until then, parents and students say they will make their case that closing a school is more than a numbers game, a decision that strikes at the heart of an already vulnerable community.

REV. C.D. WITHERSPOON: You shouldn't be trying to close down schools. To us, that's a contradiction. We are going to lead this discussion in relationship to our communities, and no outsiders would do that but us.

TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Steven Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.


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