It's understandable that Northwestern High School alumni are dismayed by the Baltimore City school board's decision to close the school in 2016. Northwestern was once a venerable neighborhood institution, several of whose graduates went on to become leaders in the community.
But in recent decades the school has been plagued by problems common to many of the city's troubled public high schools, including poor test scores, low graduation rates, disciplinary issues and an aging physical plant that no longer supports learning commensurate with today's higher standards. Northwestern now lags the citywide averages in dropout rates, pass rates on High School Assessment tests and the percentage of students who go on to college, among other measures. The lawsuit a group of alumni filed last week seeking to block its closure is unlikely to change that or to benefit the students currently enrolled there.
School closures are almost always traumatic events in the life of their communities. Despite its storied history, Northwestern is one of 26 schools across the city slated to be shuttered as part of the school board's ambitious 10-year, $2.4 billion plan to renovate or rebuild 136 dilapidated school buildings. That plan has won the support of thousands of city residents who rallied in Annapolis this week to demand lawmakers approve a long-term state funding commitment to the school system's capital improvement program, despite the fact that the alumni's lawsuit threatens to throw a monkey wrench into the works.
We think the board made the right policy decision in regard to school closings, even though it means some neighborhoods inevitably will lose institutions with long traditions of service. Consolidating operations in fewer buildings will allow the school system to use limited construction funding more cost-effectively and make more efficient use of underutilized space. Ultimately, that will benefit all the city's schoolchildren.
The Northwestern alumni claim the plan to close their alma mater is racially discriminatory because it would disproportionately affect low-income, minority students. But that argument could be made for virtually every school in Baltimore, a city where the overwhelming majority of public school students fit that description. If one were to accept the alumni's reasoning, almost no school anywhere in the city could ever be closed for any reason.
Clearly that was not the intention behind the federal civil rights laws the alumni are counting on to bolster their case. Nor have the plaintiffs offered any evidence of illegal discriminatory intent on the part of the school board in deciding to close some schools and not others. And given the overall demographics of the city's public school population, it's hard to see how the board's decision to close Northwestern could be viewed as even unintentional discrimination.
The school board's mission is not to preserve the legacy of its schools or even to maintain them as community anchors. It is to provide a free and adequate public education to Baltimore's children today and in the future. The school board had to make some extremely tough choices regarding the most practical way to rebuild or replace dozens of some of the oldest school buildings in the state within a reasonable time frame, and that's what it did.
The question Northwestern's alumni should be asking is not whether the school board is intentionally or unintentionally discriminating against low-income, minority students but whether the schools they now attend are adequately preparing them for post-high school success in college and the work world.
Do the schools house modern, well-lighted classrooms, libraries and athletic facilities, state-of-the-art science labs and computer centers? And can schools that lack such amenities be brought up to standard for any reasonable cost in money and time? Far from being luxuries, these are basic tools for learning in the 21st century.
The board made a judgment that the wisest course was to close Northwestern and transfer its students to Forest Park High School, which is slated for extensive renovation and is currently underutilized. That was the right call. One can certainly empathize with the loss Northwestern's alumni feel. But their emotional attachment to a building that, despite many fond memories, can no longer fulfill its educational mission is no reason to deny today's students the opportunity to learn in a more modern facility that is better equipped to meet their needs.