Poly budget cut protest

Students and recent grads from city and poly protesting budget cuts at a school board meeting (Helgi Olgeirsson / June 25, 2014)

Almost a year after Baltimore City Schools CEO Andrés Alonso left Baltimore, some city officials and nonprofit leaders are quietly trying to change a central pillar of his leadership policy. The battle has so far played out politely and behind closed doors, but a protest by students from Baltimore City College and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute before the Baltimore school board's May 27 meeting may finally bring it into the open.

"We want to have more control over what's being given to us," Dikshant Malla, a 2013 City College graduate now studying at Johns Hopkins University, said at the demonstration in front of the school board's North Avenue headquarters. The irony is that "more control" is exactly what Alonso envisioned, but there were unintended consequences.

At issue Tuesday was about $65,000 for two programs that help advanced students reach their potential. One is the International Baccalaureate program at City College, Thomas Jefferson Elementary/Middle, and Mount Washington School. The program, which traces its roots to Geneva in 1968, offers a challenging course of study to selected students in some 3,800 schools in 147 countries. The other program is the Ingenuity Project, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that is partially funded by the Abell Foundation and offers an advanced, math-and-science-centric course of study to select students beginning in middle school at Roland Park, Mount Royal, and Hamilton middle schools and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

Some money for both programs was proposed to be cut from the school system's $1.3 billion operating budget this year because of budget constraints, says Maria Navarro, city schools' acting chief academic officer-although both proposed cuts are now restored and, in fact, money for the overall program is the same for the Ingenuity Project and slightly more for the International Baccalaureate. But changes are coming as part of Alonso's long-standing policy of giving individual school principals responsibility (and the money) for budgeting the programs at their own schools. "What schools will be receiving is a schedule of sort of weaning off of the central dollars," Navarro says, "and a scaling up of the school and other resources."

"This is very much an internal fight in the school system," says City Councilman Bill Henry, who introduced a resolution on May 12 calling for the I.B. and Ingenuity funding to be restored. "We're just now seeing it bubble forth."

By Tuesday morning, a few hours before the school board met to vote on the budget, word came that the programs at City and Poly, as well as at Roland Park Middle, were being restored. Edie House Foster, the school system's spokeswoman, says the money came from "the school contingency line item."

The protesters were not impressed. "The problem remains-lack of transparency," said Erica Puentes, a 2013 City College graduate and an of the organizer of the protest that drew about 25 students. In an interview, Puentes credited the Ingenuity Project with changing her life.

"I went to a very under-funded school in West Baltimore, Hilton Elementary School," she says. "I did not even have a fifth-grade teacher; when I was there the fourth-grade teachers split their time in the fifth-grade class. Then someone in the administration mentioned the Ingenuity Program, and I ended up at Roland Park Middle . . . I was challenged, finally, and now I'm in college [at the University of Maryland, College Park] and getting better grades than kids from Howard County."

At the May 27 school board meeting, the students thanked the board for restoring the money. But the vote only restores the money for this year.

"One of the lingering problems with the Ingenuity Project-every year some 300 kids qualify, but they only have 180 slots," Henry says. "And by an extraordinary coincidence, the 180 kids who do get into it don't match up with the demographics of the school system."

Henry says he's looking for a way to fund that program so that every student who qualifies can get in. He also says that the decentralization of the funding, while well-intentioned and good in theory, creates day-to-day inefficiencies both for the people who run school programs and for the principals. "So instead of a nonprofit group getting, say, $50,000 from [the school board's central office] for 10 schools, now it's 10 meetings for $5,000 each," Henry says. He cites the Baltimore Urban Debate League as one of several programs affected.

"So time and resources that could be used to help students need to be spent trying to get in front of principals who are also very busy," says Pam Block Brier, chief executive officer of the debate league. "We're one of the larger organizations going door-to-door."

Block Brier takes pains not to sound like a complainer-and City Paper sought her out, not the other way round-but the policy has hurt the program, which is universally lauded and had always aimed at the most underserved students at the most underserved schools, she says. "Our goal was to continue to grow and reach as many students as we can. At our peak we were reaching 1,000 students a year, and that was just scratching the surface," Block Brier says. "This year was just over 500."

Navarro says the school system's policy of the money following the student should allow for all of the programming that makes sense, though she acknowledges that money is always tight at all levels and hard choices are inevitable. Schools currently receive about $1,000 per year extra to serve every advanced student they have enrolled, Navarro says-and those numbers have been growing.

"What we anticipate is that we have about 2,000 more students [in the coming year] which will translate into more dollars" for the schools they attend, she says.

The school system has supported myriad programs that help both advanced students and those who are not (or not yet) recognized as academically gifted to excel in new challenges, Navarro says: "We're funding things in other ways that equate to enrichment . . . we're funding engineering, STEM . . . so many kids that get the opportunity." At the May 27 meeting, interim schools CEO Tisha Edwards lauded three groups of students who had excelled at the national level. For example, last year some 1,600 Baltimore City students wrote essays for the National History Day contest, part of a yearlong program of advanced history studies operated by a College Park nonprofit. A few years ago just 154 Baltimore students participated, Edwards said.

One of the city's National Academic League teams-from Roland Park Middle School-finished second in the national middle school contest. Edwards congratulated the students at the May 27 meeting.

Much of the responsibility for finding the money for such programs now rests on school principals, though. "There are very entrepreneurial principals," Navarro says, "who are continuing to find multiple ways in the community of supporting those programs."

Block Brier says this part of the system is what needs rethinking. "When I go to principals they never say they don't see the value in debate," she says. "They do say, 'I have to choose between full time librarian and debate.'

"I think that it's important that this conversation be opened up," Block Brier says, "and that they find some way of striking a balance."