One month after graduating from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Tiana Sanders got a phone call from her mother in West Virginia: she had fallen ill and was no longer able to care for Sanders’ then-8-year-old brother, Tyler.
So, in July 2020, Sanders became her brother’s legal guardian and he came to live with her in Southwest Baltimore, where he started attending Steuart Hill Academic Academy.
“This was tumultuous for both of us,” Sanders said, “but in the interim, having access to main necessities within walking distance has made every day easier. Tyler feels agency and the freedom of knowing that his main resources in his school are in walking distance. With all of the personal trauma of leaving our mom and moving from West Virginia to Baltimore City, Steuart Hill has been a solid rock in the height of COVID.”
But that could change if the Baltimore City school board moves forward with recommendations to permanently close Steuart Hill along with two other elementary schools – Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School in East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood, and Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School in West Baltimore’s Madison Park neighborhood – in summer 2022. School officials also recommended the closure of New Era Academy, a high school in Cherry Hill in South Baltimore, in 2023.
School officials in November proposed the closures as part of their Annual Review of Schools Recommendations Report 2021-22, which cited declining enrollment, structural problems and other issues at those schools.
The school board was scheduled to vote on the school closures Tuesday, but postponed the vote until Jan. 25 after community members voiced opposition.
A coalition of teachers, parents, guardians, and community advocates urged the school board to halt any school closure decisions for at least two years – instead of two weeks – during a rally Monday afternoon in front of the Baltimore City Public Schools system headquarters.
An online petition to delay the school board’s vote on school closures until the 2023-2024 school year has garnered more than 900 signatures as of this article’s publication.
Rally speakers said there should have been more time between the November announcement of proposed and the school board’s originally scheduled vote.
“Parents, faculty and community members were given roughly eight weeks in the midst of Thanksgiving, a new wave of the COVID Omicron variant and winter break to process and organize counterarguments to this proposal to close our schools in the midst of a pandemic,” Fulton said.
Community members are hopeful that school officials will meet with them to reach a solution.
“With all of us working together – families, staff, community members, churches, school board members and elected officials – I am confident that we can find a way forward for our children,” said Elizabeth Reichelt, co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD).
A BCPSS spokesperson said the school board has received the coalition’s request to meet to discuss the potential closures, but said the Jan. 25 board meeting will be “the best place to hear the result” of the board’s considerations.
School board members “are tasked with incredible work and trying to make decisions to solve real challenges that will result in improving the quality of education and service to our students and families,” the BCPSS spokesperson said. “These are never easy decisions and there are no perfect solutions. They are weighing everything they have heard, learned and received during this process to make their decisions.”
Fareeha Waheed, the vice president of the Baltimore Teachers Union and a teacher at Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary, said closing schools would exacerbate the trauma and instability that Baltimore students and families have faced during the coronavirus pandemic.
“While people are grieving, losing their loved ones and worrying about their own health, students are working to catch up with grade-level material,” Waheed said. “Our schools are trying to reconnect our families and maintain strong and effective relationships with our students. We are all barely hanging on by a thread, and it’s not the time to throw closing and rezoning into the mix.”
If the targeted schools are closed, students would be assigned to nearby schools.
The school system provides yellow bus transportation for elementary students who live more than one mile from their neighborhood school.
But Sanders said the closures would leave some students close enough to still have to walk or find other transportation to their rezoned school, but far enough to present challenges for families.
Sanders’ brother Tyler, now 9 and a fourth-grader at Steuart Hill, currently walks to school. But if he is reassigned, Sanders said she would walk with him because she is uncomfortable with him crossing the busy roads to get to Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School.
The school system’s report shows enrollment at Steuart Hill Academic Academy declined from 275 students during the 2017-2018 school year to 159 students in the 2021-2021 school year – a decrease of about 42%.
During that same time, enrollment at Eutaw-Marshburn dropped from 296 to 192 students (about 35%). At Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School, 352 to 271 students (about 23%). And at New Era Academy, 334 to 281 students (nearly 16%).
The BCPSS spokesperson said the schools that have been recommended for closure are not the only schools experiencing “unsustainably low enrollment over a period of several years,” but the school system hopes to strengthen collective school communities by bringing them together through rezoning.
They added that the school system is focused on rezoning students to facilities “that are better able to accommodate more students, have had more recent investments or are already 21st Century Building Schools (with all the resources and academic improvements that come with that).”
Some families with students at the schools being considered for closure said their children prefer the smaller class sizes that their schools offer.
When Kari Fulton’s son Solomon transferred from a school in Washington, D.C., to Eutaw-Marshburn in January 2020, “he immediately loved the school, loved the teachers,” she said.
“Then, of course, he went into virtual school right after that,” she said. “So it will be really hard [if the school closes] because we would have to go through all of that adjustment once again and I really worry about how that will disrupt his education process, his ability to make friends, and even just his ability to be seen.”
Fulton said the smaller class sizes at Eutaw-Marshburn have benefited her son, and she worries how he will fare with larger class sizes if he is rezoned.
“He thrives in a space where there’s some ability to have some direct attention … This past semester, he got most improved in math, most improved in reading, is on honor roll, and I think a lot of those came from the benefit of having more intentional space to learn,” she said.
Fulton is also concerned that larger class sizes will pose a greater risk for COVID-19 transmission among students and teachers.
“We were late coming to this rally because we were in line waiting to get COVID tested to make sure that my son and his school were safe enough for him to be in,” she said. “Imagine having to do that with even more students in the classroom.”
Nearly 40% of Baltimore City public schools have transitioned to virtual learning as of Tuesday, either due to a insufficient number of staff available to operate the school or the school’s ability to conduct COVID-19 testing.
The BCPSS spokesperson said the school system will tailor solutions to each community’s specific needs and concerns, including finding partners who can provide funding to improve facility conditions, ensure students can travel to school safely, and implement other initiatives.
If the school board approves the recommended closures, the transition process would begin in February and continue for the next couple years, according to the spokesperson.
Waheed shared the story of a third-grade student with learning disabilities, who transferred to Eutaw-Marshburn in the middle of the school year.
The school implemented her individualized education program, but Waheed said it “wasn’t the most comprehensive.” It took many months of building a relationship with her and her family to fully realize her needs, including counseling and food.
“I think about how eventually she was very successful, but it was a bumpy road at first,” Waheed said. “I just think about her and what would have happened if my student was transferring into a new school community right now, in the middle of COVID-19.”
Reichelt said BUILD and ReBUILD Metro have invested millions of dollars into the Broadway East and Johnston Square communities over the past decade. She fears closing schools would unravel a lot of the work those neighborhoods have accomplished.
“These communities are on the rise and deserve an excellent neighborhood school,” she said. “Closing these schools would hollow out the heart of these communities.
Fulton acknowledged the issues outlined in the report, but she said those problems call for increased funding and other resources – not shutdowns.
“Our students deserve investment, not divestment,” Fulton said. “We believe in the power of our neighborhood schools as anchors of the community. These are spaces that help to build residents who have pride in this city. That’s what I want for my son and that’s what I want for every child in Baltimore City, so please keep our schools open.”
Oliver resident Audrey Carter, a member of the coalition, echoed that point.
“These are fixable issues,” she said. “We can work with this. We can work on increasing enrollment, work on building factors, whatever it is that you’re saying … But definitely now is not the time to close schools.”
But the BCPSS spokesperson said New Era and Eutaw-Marshburn have the “most severe needs,” with needed renovation costs ranging from $2 million to $20 million. Even then, those repairs “would not fix other systemic issues that the buildings have and does not provide students with 21st Century learning environments,” they said.
Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School holds a special place in Carter’s heart. She said that she, her son, and one of her grandsons all graduated from the school.
“‘Nifty 250,’ as we called it when I attended it, has always been a long-standing positive institution in our community,” she said. “Closing it would be a detriment to families and our community.”
Carter was one of the 13 Black women community leaders featured in the photojournalism project “Guardians of Baltimore,” by Kirby Griffin.
“I’m trying to honor that title,” Carter said, by advocating for her neighborhood’s youth.
Over the years, Carter has worked to establish and maintain bonds with the young people in her community.
“I’ve seen how consistent love that you show to a child makes a difference then and even now when I see them in high school and older,” she said. “Sending our children to other schools in unfamiliar neighborhoods with unfamiliar teachers will cause further irreparable harm physically and emotionally, especially in the midst of a pandemic.”