Baltimore students lead rally for better school facilities

EducationAmerican Civil Liberties UnionBernard C. YoungStephanie Rawlings-Blake

Baltimore Freedom Academy students marched along East Fayette Street and in front of City Hall late Thursday afternoon, chanting "Save our schools!" and hoisting placards with such messages as "No Justice, No Peace, No Air, No Heat."

They led a procession of the school's teachers, faculty and parents into the adjacent War Memorial Building, where the group of about 40 joined approximately 200 other residents demanding that elected officials come up with funding to fix the city's deteriorating schools.

The "Speak Out" was the latest bid by Transform Baltimore, a new coalition of about two dozen groups, to improve city schools and neighborhoods.

The coalition is calling for city, state and federal leaders to provide funding to renovate and modernize all public schools within eight years. The group pointed to efforts in Greenville, S.C., which says it used innovative methods to modernize 70 school buildings in five years.

"We're trying to approach it in a productive manner, but the parents and the teachers and the kids are suffering now. We need to get this plan moving," said Bebe Verdery, director of the Maryland ACLU's Education Reform Project, one of the organizations that comprise Transform Baltimore. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that a full-scale modernization of city schools would cost $2.8 billion.

On Thursday, Transform Baltimore displayed images of dilapidated school conditions as well as more than 2,000 postcards sent by parents, students and other citizens to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Students spoke of horrific learning conditions: roaches, rodents, decaying roofs, rotting walls, sewage overflows, and inadequate heating and cooling systems. Some students and parents questioned government leaders' priorities in allowing such conditions to exist.

Charisma Coles of City Springs Elementary School likened going to the school's bathroom to using a Porta-Potty.

Briauna Wills, a senior at Baltimore Freedom Academy, said that the school has no science lab and no air conditioning. "It's not that the teachers aren't the best, because they are, and it's not that the students are misbehaving. That's not it. We have buildings that you can't do anything with," said Wills.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who attended the Speak Out, said the testimony was similar to complaints he's heard about the condition of city schools for the past 15 to 20 years.

"We owe it to our students to have state-of-the-art schools," Young said. "Our school buildings are conducive to our kids' learning. If they go into school buildings that don't have running water, where bathrooms aren't functioning properly, with outdated furniture and no books in the library, then what do we expect from our kids?"

Transform Baltimore officials said they had met Thursday with Rawlings-Blake. Efforts to reach her Thursday evening were unsuccessful.

Verdery said that after Thursday's event, "We'll continue building public pressure for the city and the school system and the state to act on a big plan to renovate other schools."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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