Northwestern High School preparing for fight

Sheila Dixon

Armed with a plan for protests and petitions, phone banks and pep rallies, the Northwestern High School Alumni Association has set "Operation Hands-Off Northwestern" in motion.

The association's leadership met Tuesday with parents and community activists to map out what they say will be a fight to the bitter end to save the large Baltimore City high school from closing — from a pep rally Friday to a legal injunction and civil rights lawsuit when the school board takes its final vote on the recommendation in the 2015-2016 school year.

As part of a 10-year-plan unveiled by city schools CEO Andrés Alonso last week, the 46-year-old Northwestern — whose alumni include Baltimore's first female mayor, Sheila Dixon — would be among 26 school buildings to close, and 29 school programs to be axed or merged, in order to upgrade and modernize the dilapidated infrastructure of the entire system.

"We're going to push back, and we're going to push back fierce," said Rita Collins, president of the school's alumni association.

The school system's plan would shutter its most underused and worn-down buildings and merge programs, to tailor 136 rehabilitated or new buildings to its population in the next decade.

"We honor the passion of our students and staff and the loyalty of our alumni for their schools," said Tisha Edwards, Alonso's chief of staff, in a statement.

"At the same time, there is a deep belief … that if our students are to be fully prepared to compete in the global economy, they deserve to learn in fully modernized 21st century buildings that support academic achievement and take their progress to the next level. That simply cannot happen without change."

The district's 10-year-plan is also designed to have the school system using 77 percent of its infrastructure, up from the current 65 percent — a necessary increase to secure funding for the system's planned $2.4 billion overhaul of its infrastructure. City school officials said that while Northwestern's sprawling building would cost $48 million to renovate, nearby Forest Park High School would cost $13 million. Both Northwestern and Forest Park are projected to be underutilized, school officials said, at 24 percent and 34 percent capacity, respectively.

"We just don't see the $48 million," said the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as he took a tour of the high school Tuesday night, including the school's gleaming gymnasium, where student-athletes practicing after school asked whether he was there about "taking their school."

"There are several high schools around the city that don't have these amenities," he said, adding that the groups are planning to challenge the $1 million report commissioned by the district, which guided the recommendations on whether to close, merge or upgrade buildings. "Something's just not right about this."

Alumni said that in the last decade, the school system has cut or cut back on many programs at the school — such as music, rigorous academic courses and JROTC — but the school has still seen thousands of dollars in upgrades, until this year.

The campus boasts new bleachers, an outdoor tennis court, volleyball court, track and auditorium, all done within the last five years. Fresh lockers line the hallways.

"We don't have a broken-down building like other schools," Collins said, adding that other large high schools, like Polytechnic Institute, have larger renovation costs. "They say it's the plumbing — but, of course, we can't see that."

What the community would like to see, they said, is for the system to restore the bustling high school for the Park Heights community to what it once was.

"This has been 10 years in the making," said Kim Collick-Vice, vice president of Northwestern's alumni association. "And now they say it's underutilized, when they've sucked out all of the programs we need to attract and function. We're trying to preserve the future."

The city school board will hold its first public forum on the 10-year-plan recommendations Dec. 19, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Polytechnic Institute.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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