For Westside Elementary, unrest was just one of many challenges

On heels of unrest, Westside teachers had to think fast

Spencella Dobson, a volunteer at Westside Elementary School in Baltimore's Penn North community, says that people don't talk nearly enough about the effect that last year's unrest had on the city's children, specifically the impact it had on kids at Westside Elementary.

"I think one of the main things that people forget about is the trauma," Dobson says. "That's what a lot of teachers at Gilmor Elementary, Westside Elementary School—that's what they had to deal with."

Children saw their neighborhoods occupied by city and state police, as well as National Guard troops dressed in full gear. But no one ever bothered to explain to kids what was happening, or why, she says. "There were no psychologists provided to deal with that and have conversations about it. You always hear about teachers becoming the parent, the therapist, everything like that—and that was definitely heightened at that moment…You had children who were acting out. They saw acting out, they saw the guns…and they were really treated like prisoners. For a city with children with already no hope, it gave them even more reason to be like 'Well, what am I fighting for? What am I going to school for? I'm already a prisoner in my own home, in my own neighborhood.'"

One bright spot, Dobson says, was the way teachers at Westside volunteered their time to distribute lunches to kids who, since schools were closed for a few days, wouldn't have eaten otherwise.

"A lot of the faculty, like any teachers that were off…they would bring books in for the kids and stuff like that," she says. "We had a lot of donated books, all types of snacks and foods for their lunches. At some point we did a pizza party at Gilmor Homes."

Because of Westside's proximity to Mondawmin Mall—where on April 27, students leaving school were met with heavily armed officers—the ensuing chaos came close to the school. Faculty and staff at Westside had to think fast about what to do.

"What was going on here during the riots?" asks Larry Simmons, the Community School Coordinator at Westside. "Folks were eating, folks were fellowshipping—weren't really concerned about what was happening outside."

Simmons wasn't in Baltimore when things started popping off. He was headed to California for an education conference. He paid to watch CNN on the plane and saw Baltimore on the news.

"I'm like 'What the hell? That's my street! That's my school! What's going on?'"

After he landed, he stayed in contact with staff back in Baltimore as they decided what to do with kids who were showing up for Westside's after school program.

"We kept the kids in the building," Simmons says. "It was a safe space. So we didn't cancel after school and any parents that were out on the street that needed to get off the street were welcome to come in." They ended up keeping kids and their parents until around 6:30 p.m.

"What we try to do is make sure that we have the best space possible for our families," Simmons says. "We can't control what's going on outside, but what we can do is fight what happens outside from bleeding in to our building."

He says that even though the school was at the center of much of the riots, they have been somewhat ignored in recovery efforts. "There was some money that came into Baltimore after the riots to do some programming and supporting young people and their families. We applied for some of that money. We didn't get any of it," Simmons says. "A lot of the money that came into the city after the riots went to Sandtown-Winchester and didn't come to Penn North. So, Matthew Henson [Elementary School] got a bunch of money for mental health to deal with the trauma from the riots, but we didn't get anything."

A year later, school administrators and families are continuing a fight that started long before Gray's death and the events that followed it. In January, the school board voted to close Westside along with five other schools at the end of the year. Westside had originally been slated to close in 2018 as part of the city's 21st Century Schools Plan.

According to The Baltimore Sun, the closure was accelerated as part of a plan to eliminate schools that "have poor performance or climate, low enrollment or underutilized buildings."

Now, the plan is for Westside to house students from John Eager Howard while a new school is constructed. Then, both student bodies will attend a newly constructed school in Reservoir Hill.

Del. Antonio Hayes, who grew up in the Penn North community has been an advocate for Westside. "They're closing it because they're not packed with kids," says Hayes, adding that it has been a haven in a community that has already lost a much-needed recreation center. "The school has always been a safe space that people could go to."

Hayes points out that the school often gives away food to families who need it—both through a food pantry program that operates throughout the year and turkeys that they give out for Thanksgiving.

It's not that the school isn't working, he says, it is. He points out that student test results are on par with others across the city. He's right, although city testing scores aren't exactly anything to write home about—according to 2015 PARCC test results, just a little over 12 percent of city fifth graders met literacy expectations.

"Since the uprising there has been no new investment in that community," Hayes says. "The community is already plagued with so many vacancies. That ray of hope is a huge loss."

Hayes would like to save the building and reuse it as a community center.

As for Westside's future, Simmons says that school officials haven't presented staff at either school with any kind of transition plan, so administrators at Westside and John Eager Howard have already begun putting their heads together to make the transition for students and families as smooth as possible.

"We didn't get any of that funding that came in for the riot but we were able to petition The Family League of Baltimore, who is one of our biggest supporters, [and] express to them about the lack of a transition plan and how we want to support our families," Simmons says. "They gave us some funds in August to do a Back-to-School Jamboree." He says the group has also paid for other smaller activities that are held for children at both schools about every other month. "All of the issues around the merger are really adult issues and not really kid issues so we try to celebrate the fact that a new school community is going to come out of this merger."

Next in the fight is the issue of transportation. Simmons says that while the school district is providing transportation to Westside for the John Eager Howard students while the new school is under construction, the same accommodations won't be made for Penn North kids once the Reservoir Hill school is complete. That could mean children walking long stretches down busy North Avenue.

"It's only .9 miles but you have to think about all the stuff you have to walk through to get from here to John Eager Howard," Simmons says, his voice trailing off.

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