A few minutes’ walk away from Kristian Herbert’s home on South Stricker Street in Southwest Baltimore, a vacant house caught fire in 2022, killing three city firefighters. A few minutes to the west, the area’s lone full-service grocery store closed at the end of last year.

It’s been a tough stretch for Herbert, a mother of three small children who moved to Baltimore a few years ago. In April, her uncle was shot and killed in nearby Washington, D.C. And a few weeks later, her kids’ school, Steuart Hill Academic Academy, closed its doors for good. She plans on homeschooling Zai’Vion, 8, and Zurii, 7, this upcoming school year.

Herbert said she has been too badly burned by the Baltimore City Public Schools system to give it another chance. She and other Steuart Hill parents lobbied for more than a year to keep the school open, an attempt that ended unsuccessfully this past March. She’s now named as a plaintiff in an appeal filed in the Baltimore City Circuit Court system seeking to overturn the decision again, though the closure will proceed in spite of the ongoing legal challenge.

“It’s been really messy,” Herbert said one warm afternoon as Zai’Vion, Zurii, and their 3-year-old sister Charlee played together outside their rowhome in Mount Clare, a compact neighborhood wedged between Carrollton Ridge and Pigtown. She hopes to move the family to Baltimore County in time for Charlee to attend kindergarten.

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Zurii Herbert and Zai'Vion Allen run through the grass next to their home in Baltimore on Monday, May 15, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

In some Baltimore neighborhoods, where schoolhouses may be among the last stable anchors left, the decision to close one can feel like a death knell. And for some parents and advocates, closing lower-enrolled schools while leaving overpopulated ones intact can send a message about a neighborhood’s value.

“They play favoritism,” Herbert said about the school system.

Steuart Hill is one of at least 30 schools to close and be transferred to the city in 10 years, records show. The wave of shutdowns in Baltimore stems from an agreement among city and state leaders that new and much-needed investment in city school buildings would occur in tandem with closing “underutilized” schools, or those with enrollment below 85%. Since 2013, 29 schools have been rebuilt or revitalized including in neighborhoods where schools have gone dark, and more are on the way.

Only four of the 30 shuttered buildings have been sold and converted to new uses, records show. Another nine are in the process of being sold, including the former Waverly Middle School, which members of a Baltimore City Council committee voted last week to advance. The rest have either been demolished, leased, or retained by the city or school system for internal uses, or they haven’t been able to find new stewards.

Not unique to Baltimore, school closures are an unpopular residual effect of changing migration patterns. Across the country, opposition groups have staged protests, sit-ins and hunger strikes in response, arguing that closing schools hurts children and neighborhoods. Many say that students of color and those from poor backgrounds are disproportionately affected since they typically can’t afford to relocate to more populated and affluent areas where school closures rarely happen. In Baltimore, the closed schools have been concentrated on the city’s east and west sides.

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City officials have known for years about the looming threats associated with mass closures, including the expenses necessary to maintain properties and the emotional toll associated with blight. A consulting group, HR&A Advisors, wrote in a 2017 planning report that the city would need to soften the blow, with “coordinated public public leadership, strong community support, well thought out urban planning policies and interest from private developers.”

But even after a decade of closing schools in rapid-fire succession, officials acknowledge there are still holes in the process, especially involving how the city has handled the surplus real estate challenge.

Failure to sell or convert the school sites has left the campuses more vulnerable to vandalism and crime, officials from the city’s Department of General Services said, and the now-vacant buildings — many of them dating back to the 1960s and 70s and outfitted for extremely limited uses — face a challenging real estate market.

Potential developers are tasked not only with finding new, zoning-permissible uses for these buildings but also with clearing any debts, which city officials said at a June town hall may exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars. They said the buildings tend to deteriorate fast once they close.

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At the town hall, an attendee asked planning director Chris Ryer how long it might take for Steuart Hill to be redeveloped or demolished.

“I’m sorry to say it, but I cannot give you an answer,” he replied. “I can say it’s not quick.”

From left to right, Robin Jenkins, Nzingha Evenly, and Savannah Norris, moms of Steuart Hill students, and Paige Single, Steuart Hill alumna, all Southwest Baltimore residents and members of the SHAA Strong Coalition. (Courtesy of the SHAA Strong Coalition)

The cost of holding empty school buildings is rising

School districts benefit from higher enrollment; costs and efficiencies can be bundled and scaled and per-pupil dollars go further. Educators argue that continued use of lower-enrolled schools, especially those with laundry lists of maintenance problems, outweighs the damage caused by closing those schools.

“When we merge, the goal is not to take away or harm communities, but to make sure we can really, fully offer what we need to our students,” said Angela Alvarez, who oversees the school closure process and charter schools as the Baltimore City Public Schools system’s executive director of new initiatives. “Your child should have art, drama, field trips and all the things wealthier districts can afford. More things, not less.”

The city’s smaller schools have struggled to fulfill state-mandated curriculum requirements, Alvarez noted. Buildings without working heating or air conditioning systems, for example, can hinder classroom success, she said. Merged schools have more resources to invest in training, technical support and equipment for teachers and staff, she said, which can help with recruitment and retention.

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The advantages of merging schools don’t always negate the effects of being displaced from a school against a family’s or a community’s will, said Sally Afia Nuamah, assistant professor in human development and social policy at Northwestern University. And the longer shuttered buildings stay empty, the more the hurt will ripple, she said.

“The school building is often just left to sit and becomes an eyesore, which further depletes a community already struggling,” said Nuamah, a researcher and author of “Closed for Democracy: How Mass School Closure Undermines the Citizenship of Black Americans,” an examination of mass-school closures’ effects on citizenship and civic engagement.

“And the cost savings people say are happening, they don’t see,” she said.

The city’s general services department currently is responsible for maintaining about 20 of the former school buildings, agency spokesman John Riggin said. Their responsibilities include everything from fencing to lawn mowing and security, and it plans to start using and funding surveillance cameras at every campus to combat vandalism and theft. Copper wiring and plumbing have become especially vulnerable, he said.

Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining the empty buildings has risen, according to city budget documents.

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The city spent a little more than $460,000 on surplus school building management in the budget year that ended June 30, 2018. But those costs rose to $1.5 million in the budget year that just wrapped up and are expected to increase to $2.1 million in the current budget, records show.

Steuart Hill Academic Academy in Baltimore on Monday, May 15, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

‘These parents deserve more’

Herbert and other Steuart Hill parents said their appeal of the closure felt like it had been decided long before they took their case to the Maryland State Board of Education.

In the appeal, they argued that lower-enrolled schools may better suit their children, some of whom might require extra attention in the classroom. They worried about their property values and about their neighborhood’s ability to bounce back. And the closure, they added, would force more children to walk farther distances to and from school each day at a time when more young people are dying from gun violence in Baltimore — including near schools.

“These parents deserve more than for this board to throw up its hands and say you’re out of luck,” Theresa Concepción, the attorney who argued the case on behalf of the Steuart Hill coalition, told the state board.

Latasha Fason said the blow of losing the school would be hard to shake. “It was like a gut-wrenching feeling that I have to figure this out without knowing how to do it,” said Fason, whose daughter, Ava, 8, attended Steuart Hill.

The two live a block and a half from Steuart Hill, and Fason said they would lose their site-specific federal housing subsidy if they were to move. They have no other relatives nearby to help with child care or major decision-making.

Fason considered Frederick Elementary School, a charter school, the best fit for Ava out of the two “receiving” schools designated to take in Steuart Hill students, but it is exactly a mile away from their home, and the city will only provide a subsidized yellow bus service for elementary school students who live more than a full mile away. Fason has a car, but she never knows if she’ll have enough money for the payments.

Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School, the other receiving school, is closer to home, Fason said. But she worried about Ava, whom she described as academically gifted, becoming just another number in a kindergarten through eighth grade environment.

“It’s not fair at all,” Fason said. “And I feel like if it were their [school board members’] children, in their district, it wouldn’t occur at all.”

Within a few hours, the state school board affirmed the local board’s decision to close Steuart Hill. A state board member urged the small crowd of parents and activists who had gathered in the conference room that day to take comfort in the fact that the two receiving schools had slightly higher state report card scores than Steuart Hill.

For those who fight hard to prevent closures from happening, Northwestern University’s Nuamah said the experience can leave them distrustful of institutions and wary of democratic processes long after the fight ends.

“They take away from the experience that they aren’t valued relative to other citizens in the same way,” she said. “People feel like it’s not just a school building.”

Abigail Breiseth, canvassing the neighborhood surrounding Steuart Hill before dark, approaches a door with flyers and a clipboard. Breiseth is a member of the coalition fighting to keep Steuart Hill open.
Abigail Breiseth, canvassing the neighborhood surrounding Steuart Hill before dark, approaches a door with printed information about the efforts to keep the school open. When her knocks went unanswered, she left flyers behind. (Hallie Miller/Hallie Miller)

A political issue

Residents, elected leaders and school officials are rethinking school closures.

Ashley “Ash” Esposito won one of two seats in the city’s first-ever school board election running on a campaign that included addressing the inequities caused by school closures. Student displacements are destabilizing, Esposito said, particularly for children who grow up on society’s margins.

“We need to push back, and fight back, and say no; enrollment and crumbling infrastructure is not the burden of these kids,” she said.

Esposito said her win signifies a change in the school closure momentum. She thinks awareness of the harms of displacement is spreading. And while she lauded the board for considering reforms to the process — including instituting a data collection requirement to track how students fare after their schools close — “My stance is, we should’ve never gotten here, period,” she said.

The city’s Board of School Commissioners is not the only public entity rethinking the school closure process. City officials in the Department of Housing and Community Development, who are often tasked with determining the next steps for a closed school building, have started using more sophisticated software to solicit bids and drum up more interest in investing. City planners have cleaned up the surplus schools website. And in a rare display, a state school board member wrote a dissenting opinion to the Steuart Hill decision, arguing the city should change how it closes schools in the future.

Despite its flaws, Baltimore still might have a leg up over other cities and jurisdictions that have closed schools across the country, said Ariel Bierbaum, an assistant professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland, College Park who has researched Baltimore.

Some areas, for example, rely on school system administrators to dispose of excess real estate. Other jurisdictions have failed to acknowledge the racist policies and disinvestment that have led to closed schools.

“There’s a sensitivity to that in Baltimore,” Bierbaum said, adding that constructing new schools in neighborhoods where schools have closed shows the school system is considering equity — even if it isn’t always felt.

She added that city officials should involve and engage individuals into the building-conversion conversation as much as possible to restore some of the trust that’s been lost.

But for those that have been fighting to keep Steuart Hill and other schools open, the damage may be irreversible.

A crowd of parents and activists listen to Theresa Concepción and Claude de Vastey Jones present oral arguments in the appeal case about Steuart Hill Academic Academy in downtown Baltimore on March 28, 2023.
A crowd of parents and activists listen to Theresa Concepción and Claude de Vastey Jones present oral arguments in the appeal case about Steuart Hill Academic Academy in downtown Baltimore on March 28, 2023. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

On a mild afternoon in March, a day before the state board of education would reconsider the decision to close Steuart Hill, Abigail Breiseth took to the streets of the neighborhood with a one-strap knapsack, a clipboard and sensible shoes.

Breiseth, a city educator and Hollins Market resident who once ran unsuccessfully for Baltimore City Council, went door to door, telling neighbors about the coalition that had formed to stop Steuart Hill’s closing and the upcoming board meeting.

Many of the homes she passed were abandoned, and she left notes at the doors that didn’t open when she knocked. But of those who answered, almost all were appalled to hear about Steuart Hill.

“It affects the whole neighborhood,” said one Lemmon Street resident, Charlette McBroom, who was planning to move to Florida. She said she hadn’t heard about the school’s closure. “The kids have to go further now ... and some of the parents don’t walk their kids.”

Another neighbor, Laurren Sizemore, asked Breiseth why Steuart Hill had to close if the nearby Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary School had shut down years earlier. Hadn’t the neighborhood already sacrificed enough?

Breiseth canvassed the neighborhood from the time she left work that day until nightfall. She didn’t reach as many homes as she would’ve liked. And the coalition, she said, had been struggling to get more people involved.

“Every time you close a school, the system contributes to its own decline, which is counterintuitive. It chases people away,” she said. “They are moving to the county.”

hallie.miller@thebaltimorebanner.com

Hallie Miller is a reporter at The Baltimore Banner, where she hopes to dive deep into the city's communities and highlight solutions. She is passionate about engaging readers and using new tools to tell stories. Hallie spent four years at The Baltimore Sun, where she helped lead the organization's medical coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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