Principal LaWanda Wilson is an expert at making do at her tiny West Baltimore boys school. In the past year, she and her assistant principal have filled in as part-time guidance counselors, Algebra teachers and coordinators of special education when they didn’t have the money to hire them.

But last January, Wilson sat down with her supervisor to confront her budget for the following school year, and she saw that Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy West would need about $1.4 million more than the city school system would give her based on her shrinking enrollment. It was, to say the least, demoralizing. She’d have to continue cutting programs and classes and filling in when she could at the middle/high school, even though the city schools agreed to fund half of the budget deficit. She walked away thinking, “How much longer can we sustain this and give the boys who walk in the doors robust educational experiences?”

This fall, though, she did something rare and remarkable. She sat down with Kamala Carnes, principal of Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, a high school in the same long brick building that fills an entire city block in West Baltimore, and asked: Was it possible to merge the two small schools into one? The answer seemed obvious to the two principals who had been working together already, sharing spaces and resources to try to give students more opportunities.

Rarely do school principals come forward publicly to suggest their schools close or merge. “It was brave of her to say we are going to combine,” said Angela Alvarez, the city school system’s executive director of new initiatives. When the district recommends the closure of a school, most principals stay silent.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The loss of a school always elicits outcries from the community, which views it as a loss of a vital institution. The city has closed 26 schools in an attempt to “right-size” the inventory of school buildings for a population that has dwindled in the past two decades as families fled Baltimore for the suburbs. Nowhere is the flight more apparent than in high schools in West Baltimore. Bluford and Augusta Fells are among three high schools there with fewer than 400 students each.

Wilson doesn’t think her decision was brave or even worth noting. The narrative, she believes, shouldn’t be about her, but about a decision to do what is good for the boys she cares about in her school.

With just 140 students in grades six through 12, including just 75 high school students, Bluford couldn’t offer the classes Wilson thought they ought to, and she believed a merger would create a new school that might have about 400 students. Even then, the new school would be a small high school. Bluford’s middle schoolers would have to find other schools to attend.

LaWanda Wilson, principal of Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy, left, and Kamala Carnes, principal of Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, walk the school’s hallways on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The proposal to merge, which will be voted on by the Baltimore City school board in January, still has its opponents. Bahiya Abdul-Aziz was the lone parent to stand up and speak at a public meeting in December. “A lot of parents have multiple jobs, and they are always working and they aren’t able to come to the school,” she said.

The tight-knit community in an all boys school will be lost if they merge with Augusta Fells, she said. Her sons, in 6th, 9th, and 11th grades, have thrived under the mentorship of the school’s male role models, which she says is particularly important at a time when their father hasn’t been a consistent presence in their lives. She believes her sons have gained self-confidence and an interest in their educations.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“All my sons have been on the honor roll. There are other students that are really doing well in school,” she said.

The faculty has helped teach the boys how to behave and dress. “It is a brotherhood, and they all look out for one another,” she said. If there’s a fight in the school, the boys will work out their differences before they take it to an adult. “They learned how to do that in the school. ... Students who came in rough, they calmed down and integrated into the brotherhood.”

Bluford tries to focus on math and science, while Augusta Fells has a concentration in the arts, two very different tracks, she said.

Alvarez said they hope that some of the mentorship now available to boys will be carried over.

Under Wilson, the school has increased attendance, reduced chronic absenteeism and recently won an attendance award from Mayor Brandon Scott.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But Wilson believes loving and caring for her students also means making sure they have the skills they need when they graduate from high school. And she believes her school’s curriculum is lacking. “My boys deserve a full menu of classes. ... Sometimes being too small is not beneficial,” she said. She asked whether an AfricanAmerican boy in the city shouldn’t have the choice of taking chemistry, biology or physics. There was one English class offered, she said, but shouldn’t they have more choices?

Alvarez said principals of tiny schools have long had a hard time making ends meet. It isn’t unusual for them to cry at the budget table, she said, knowing that they will have difficult decisions to make.

While Alvarez said there are no plans to close other schools, the numbers paint an ominous picture. The city has more than 4,000 unoccupied seats for high schoolers, including those in West Baltimore, as well as many small schools. The city’s master plan shows that it has 11,395 excess seats above its enrollment in September 2022.

Some of that is intentional. Baltimore has tried to keep its schools, particularly its high schools, small enough so that students are known by their teachers even as the average high school in the surrounding counties has grown to 1,500 students or larger.

Larger schools are more efficient to run, however, with enough students to fill a variety of classes and to offer more extracurricular activities.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

For Abdul-Aziz, the question is not whether her boys take physics, but whether they will stay on track.

Boys in the city, she said, have “a lack of male presence of their lives. I can call some of the male teachers or the staff there on weekends and nights,” she said. “If the school merges with Augusta Fells, they lose all of that. I think they are giving up on the young men if they do that.”