Making the Ten Year Plan Work for Communities

Making the Ten Year Plan Work for Communities

Photo by Iris Kirsch.

When this year’s third graders graduate from high school, the Baltimore City Schools Ten-Year-Plan will be in full effect. The plan, announced in late November amidst much fanfare, calls for a ground-up overhaul of the buildings and facilities where our children go every day to learn and grow. Although updated facilities are a necessity for Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS), many advocates are concerned that the changes will provide a smokescreen, allowing for the closure of schools which are important to the neighborhoods they serve.

Unfortunately, as with so many things these days, camps are forming on either side. We, as a society seem to be losing the ability to accept criticism as a means of growth, instead using it as an excuse to dig in our heels. It is imperative that we let the needs of students and communities guide these decisions, as they should guide everything we do in education.

The plan is a fairly simple affair of leveraging the money BCPSS gets from the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). In other words, BCPSS would get a loan from a third-party nonprofit corporation to do serious rebuilding, renovations, and upgrades to school facilities and re-pay the loan yearly with the money MSDE allocates for BCPSS facilities upkeep. First implemented in Greenville, SC, similar plans have been fairly successful in several cities.

It makes sense in a lot of ways. First and most importantly, there are children who will wake up this unseasonably warm, rainy December morning and go to schools with innumerable leaks in the walls and ceilings. To add insult to injury, some child may be late to class after walking an obstacle course of trash cans and cardboard, set out to catch the rain, and be chastised for not taking their education seriously. Fixing up the buildings that embody education in the public eye would show students and parents that we, as a city, take education in Baltimore seriously.  

The plan makes financial sense, too. At the Maryland Education Coalition’s annual meeting, held at the end of November, Bebe Verdery of the ACLU told of a Baltimore school which had used a large share of the state funds provided to BCPSS in 2009 to buy and install a new boiler. Within a few days of turning on the new boiler, several pipes throughout the building burst simultaneously; too old and rusted to handle water coming through at the proper temperature. This caused a great deal of water damage throughout the school, which quickly deteriorated into a serious mold problem; infesting the air with dangerous microbes. By that time, of course, the rest of the money from MSDE had been allocated, and the school has had to muddle through.

This is just one of many stories of BCPSS building that are too far gone to repair.

The Ten Year Plan will allow for a major influx of money all at once, and therefore allow for systemic fixes to some schools, and thoughtful, sustainable new construction to replace some crumbling, unsafe buildings. Also, although we can’t know what will happen with the economy in the next few years, inflation is far more likely than deflation. It is likely that if we spend the money now, with the buying power of 2013-23, and pay it back with the buying power of 2015-45 we will have gotten more for the money than we could have by spending it little by little. And, of course, if we actually hire local contractors, it will mean more money circulating in the local economy.

Yet, despite all of the obvious boons, there are serious drawbacks.

The most serious of these involves the closing of at least seventeen schools and at least 26 school buildings, according to the Executive Summary of the Ten Year Plan. It is important to note the difference between a school and a school building: a school is a group of students, teachers, administrators and support staff who function as a learning community under a name and a set of guidelines. A school building is just that-- a physical space in which these groups of people can function.

One of the driving practices of the education policy everyone loves to hate, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is school closings. Schools which did not meet arbitrarily set goals of Adequate Yearly Progress were “restructured,” which usually meant essentially closing the school-- changing its name school, as well as the people in it. These closings and restructurings rarely involved any change to the physical school buildings, only to the schools.

On the flip side, school buildings are torn down fairly regularly, in almost every district around the country, and replaced without altering the composition of the school itself.

Now, with NCLB out of fashion and charter schools the new darling of education reformers, districts are looking for new ways to close purely public schools.

Many Baltimore schools will retain their organizations and, though they may be subjected to temporary inconveniences, will move into the future with newer buildings and modern wonders like working drinking fountains. Students and teachers at these schools may even be ushered into the current millennium with increased computer and internet access.

But some schools will be closed, and others “consolidated.” (Read: close one school and push the students into another. Maybe give some hiring preference to teachers from the closed school. Maybe not.) This is being touted as an important step to “right-size” the school district. According to the numbers BCPSS is circulating, we have space to educate over 120,000 students, but only have about 85,000 enrolled. The plan is to include space for around 100,000 students, in the hopes that more families will move to Baltimore (or not move away as soon as their children can walk).

These numbers are problematic in two ways. Here in Baltimore, we have every reason to trust our elected officials and bureaucrats, but tales from other towns should give us pause. Earlier in December, the Chicago Public Schools(CPS) unveiled a plan to close around 100 schools (a smaller percentage of their schools than we face losing here), which Substance News-- one of the leading sources for alternative information out of Chicago-- says is based on “lies, damned lies.” According to Substance,  CPS data shows a decline of 32,000 students in the past 12 years, but CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett is repeatedly claiming they’ve lost 125,000. Combined with dodgy census numbers, likely impacted by the housing crisis and questionable public policy, there has been major public outcry that CPS is shuttering schools the communities need.

This will make room for more charter schools who, as previously noted, will come in to fill the newly created need. But it will also likely impact class size.

The numbers that do not seem to have been released is what the average class size the Baltimore School Board used to calculate how many students will fit into a given building. Educators for Democratic Schools (EDS), a caucus (of which I am a founding member) of the Baltimore Teachers’ Union, has been advocating to have all classes in BCPSS capped at a maximum of 22. Many members of EDS are concerned that closing so many schools will push class size even further north of that goal. Class size is one of the indicators most clearly linked to student success.

Least tangibly, but maybe most importantly, is the role local schools have in grounding communities, and the serious consequences that closing these schools can have on the psyches of people who rely on them. Our definition of a school is all about the people involved; people who form relationships of trust as they engage in the difficult process of education. Tearing those people apart and breaking up those relationships causes a syndrome known as rootshock.  Communities, and the individuals and families of whom they are comprised, can experience physical ailments when schools close, and certainly pay a high emotional toll.

Baltimore community activist Grandmother Edna (Edna Lawrence) has coined the term “homeless communities” to refer to groups of people forced into relative transience by gentrification and callus planning. Many parents are concerned that they will be forced to choose between sending their children on long commutes, over potentially dangerous terrain, and moving out of their homes to be closer to schools, therefore joining this at-risk population.

Luckily, not everyone sees the plan as all-good or all-bad. Some education advocates see this proposal as an opportunity to change things for the better. We know we need education facilities that meet standards of safety and dignity. We also know that we can’t trust the government officials and bureaucrats (let alone lending institutions) to act in the interest of the working people of Baltimore.

This is therefore a rare and important opportunity for communities to speak out and demand control over the process. Parents, students, and teachers should sit down with other city residents, officials, bureaucrats, business owners, workers at non-profits, librarians, professors, and everyone else who has ideas about who to trust to get the loan, where to get it from, what renovations to make, who to hire to do the construction, what programs to foster and grow, and what to leave behind. But parents, students and teachers are the ones who will have to live with the decisions, and should therefore have ultimate decision making power.

Please join this important conversation. Many public hearings have already been held, and another is scheduled for Wednesday, December 19 from 6-8pm at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, 1400 W. Coldspring Ln. (sign up to speak at 4:30).

Iris Kirsch

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"5290","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"300","style":"width: 400px; height: 300px; float: left; margin-right: 0.5em","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"400"}}]]Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.