By Cory V. McCray and Nathaniel J. McFadden
While just about each and everyone of us are reimagining what school reopening and closure, and virtual instruction may look like amidst the new Omicron variant, my mind is also on the routine school closures that happen each year in Baltimore. These closures typically occur due to enrollment decline, building conditions, and academic performance. It is not a difficult concept to grasp. If a school is inhabitable, does not have enough students, or is failing our children, it should close – swiftly.
Last November, Baltimore City Public Schools informed our community that Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School, which is located in the 45th legislative district, would be closed for the very reasons above. This was disappointing, especially considering that the leaders came together to focus heavily on the Johnston Square and Oliver communities due to the tragic Dawson Family murders, leading to one of the fastest population growths in East Baltimore. Since the early 2000s, the population has increased by 38%, vacancies decreased by 90%, and the homicide rate decreased by 50%. Additionally, the number of green spaces has increased significantly while Johnston Square and Oliver’s Master Plans have been recognized by the Baltimore City Department of Planning.
In 2001, Madison Square Elementary School was closed due to ill performance and declining enrollment. Today, Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary is also on the chopping block. If this school – one that has become a safe haven for our children is closed, Oliver will have no elementary school. City Schools argue that the neighborhood can no longer sustain an elementary school; we disagree, wholeheartedly. Here’s why. The school building’s conditions do not fall on the community – at all. This is City Schools Leadership’s responsibility and past and current elected representatives, and our hope is that we will make the necessary upgrades that are conducive to a productive environment for our children – our future – to learn in. Further, the enrollment does not fall on the community alone. Considering that organizations such as REBUILD Metro has worked tremulously hard, population growth has been sustained in the area. Census data confirms this. Therefore, my hope is that City Schools would work with the community to ensure that we market the elementary school. For years now, school choice has focused heavily on middle and high schools. For a true community school such as Dr. Bernard Harris, it would benefit from having been marketed to the community in a positive fashion versus only being focused on to alert of its closure. While it is our understanding that City Schools plans to merge Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School with Johnston Square Elementary School in the quest to cut costs to invest in more professional staff such as music and art teachers which, they say, will increase academic performance, when should we expect to see the benefits on this merger? From my observation, what is needed at Dr. Bernard Harris to best serve the academic performance is the sustained focus on professional development and continuity of leadership. The Elementary School has had three principals in seven years. This is no fault of our children. We implore the School Board and Superintendent, to invest resources that support continuity, especially during this pandemic, and see if that provides a return on investment with our children’s education. That’s the strategy we should be adopting rather than closure. It is not uncommon for the School System to delay the closing of schools for a year or so to make modifications in order to see if performance will change. We would welcome that opportunity, and believe that that will give the community more time to rally around the school and/or work collaboratively with City Schools to develop what the transition to a potential school merger would look like.
Do not get us wrong; Baltimore – as many other urban jurisdictions around the Nation – has unique challenges with aging school buildings and declining population. Yet, this is why we must have greater accountability of services, especially those that serve our children. This is an impassioned call for City Schools to work with the community as it relates serving our children rather than “inform” us of decisions that are being planned. This is transparency. This is collaboration.
Johnston Square and Oliver are two of Baltimore’s greatest comeback stories – and has been nationally recognized as model neighborhoods for it. Baltimore City Public Schools has to ensure that it has done everything that it can on its part, before closing a school – Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School – that we know has served the community in the past and has the potential to be a strong anchor in the Oliver neighborhood. We are prepared to work hand-in-hand with North Avenue and the School Board. We know our constituents are, too. We have to address where we have fallen short, so that it does not negatively-impact our children.
Cory V. McCray, Baltimore & Nathaniel J. McFadden, Baltimore
Cory McCray represents the 45th District in the Maryland State Senate, which includes Northeast and East Baltimore City. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @SenatorMcCray.
Nathaniel McFadden represented the 45th District in the Maryland State Senate from 1995 – 2018, which includes Northeast and East Baltimore City.
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