Founders of Banneker Blake Academy allege bias in push to close charter school

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Image courtesy of Benjamin DuBose

Ahead of a school board vote tonight on whether to close Banneker Blake Academy for Arts and Sciences, an all-boys charter aimed at underserved black youth, the school’s founders argue that school district officials are singling them out on the basis of fabricated violations.

“It’s completely untrue,” executive director Carl Stokes, a former city councilman and school board member, said of the claims made in the school district’s Oct. 23 renewal report recommending the Banneker Blake Academy’s closure, which focused heavily on numerous alleged failures to document the delivery of special needs services to students.

By all accounts, the three-year-old middle school in Kenilworth Park is an academic success. The same report rates Banneker Blake as “highly effective” in increasing standardized test scores, which rank in the 81st percentile for growth, and finds that Banneker–which enrolls 208 students, over 95 percent of whom are African-American and more than half of whom are low-income–meets all instructional requirements.

Standing outside City Schools’ North Avenue headquarters on Monday afternoon, Stokes told Baltimore Fishbowl that the district’s move to close Banneker Blake was “incoherent, because we’ve done all four things we were asked to do.”

Last February, the school board granted Banneker Blake a one-year conditional contract renewal, citing concerns about cash reserves, special education practices, enrollment numbers (which have steadily climbed since its 2015 opening) and securing a permanent building (the current Northeast Baltimore facility, which is rented from the school district, will be re-allocated next year).

Stokes called the report’s charge that the school was previously missing “special educator service schedules”–documents which track delivery of individualized instruction to students–“fake violations,” adding, “we haven’t missed a deadline of the action plan that they gave us to do–not one.”

A spokesperson for City Schools, Edie House Foster, declined to comment on Stokes’ claims, but wrote that questions about the board’s rationale would be addressed at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“They’re Just Making Up Rules As They Go”

Edwin Johnson and Benjamin DuBose, the co-founders of Banneker Blake, argued the district is punishing them in part for their unconventional approach to management.
As part of their one-year conditional renewal, City Schools asked that administration keep three months of cash reserves on hand–which they did, DuBose said, at great cost to the students.

“So we did what they said, we had a $100,000 in the bank at the end of June,” DuBose said in an interview. “But what happened? We had to cut out our extended day program because we had to keep this money in the bank.”

He said the school spends 80 percent of its budget on teacher salaries, which allows them to stay open for an extended 11-month schedule, and sees no point in sequestering funds.

“Who cares if the money is in the bank when you need it for the kids to learn and move forward?” DuBose said.

Both Stokes and Johnson emphasized that mandated cash reserves were not a requirement set forth in their contract, and had not been expressed prior to February.

“They’re just making up rules as they go,” Johnson said.

Other instances of red tape have stymied their efforts, they said, like being told not to stand outside the school in the morning to greet students, or supervise the cafeteria at lunch.

“They didn’t like the idea that we were in the schools,” Johnson said, adding, “we didn’t have the money so we couldn’t hire nobody, so we volunteered.”

Both Johnson and DuBose agreed the instability of relying on a one-year contract has made recruitment near impossible.

“We lost 60 students from July to September,” DuBose said. He blamed a letter sent to parents by City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises in January warning them that she was recommending the school be closed by June. Ultimately the board voted to renew Banneker Blake’s contract, but the damage was already done.

“All those kids that we recruited decided not to come,” DuBose said. “If you’ve got a child, and you know that there’s a possibility that the school might close, you’re not going to send your kid.”

Special Education Issue

In calling for Banneker Blake’s closure, the district alleged an “ongoing pattern of noncompliance in providing special education and 504 services to students.” (A 504 plan is a guide to ensuring that students with disabilities receive the correct support.)

One-quarter of the school’s students have disabilities, among the highest percentages in the district.

In a written response, Banneker Blake refutes numerous claims in the district’s Oct. 23 report, including a failure to address audit findings that led to several students being given “hundreds of hours [of] compensatory services,” which consist of extra tutoring outside the school day.

“That’s not true,” Stokes said. “One student was given 12 hours, not dozens of students given hundreds of hours.”

Stokes says while there were some problems with administration and record keeping, they were addressed fully when a new special education coordinator was hired in September.

“We absolutely did address the audit findings,” Stokes said.

This isn’t the first time a school co-founded by Stokes has been threatened with closure. In December 2013, the school board revoked the charter for Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy, another all-boys school opened in 2007, for which Stokes served as the chief operating officer. At the time, Commissioner Marnell Cooper said the school focused too much on character-building and not enough on academics.

Banneker Blake’s founders unanimously agreed that the bottom line is the school’s approach is working.

“Their data says we’re doing a great job–not my data,” Johnson said, adding, “we are a successful school, they cannot dispute that.”

Given the number of struggling schools in Baltimore City, Stokes said, Banneker Blake’s short tenure has been a unique success, and closing it would be a disservice to the students and families.

“If most of the kids [district wide] are failing or below proficiency, and we’re doing something differently that gets them to proficiency, well thank goodness,” he said. “Thank goodness.”

Stokes was adamant that the school is not going down without a fight.

“If I’m outside of the mold, and politically they don’t like that, just leave us alone. Just leave us alone. We’re educating these boys, and that’s what we want to do. And politically, we’re not going to fight them, but politically, we’re not going to stand down.”

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