A Fox45 News investigation is raising questions about the process to approve charter schools in Baltimore City, after a school that’s now caught up in a scandal was renewed just months ago.
One former charter School operator says student success should be the School Board’s priority when renewing a charter, but it’s not.
It’s not often a Baltimore City School Board meeting draws big crowds, but on November 13, 2018, the room was packed. On that day, the school board was scheduled to vote on the renewal of Banneker Blake Middle, a charter school in North Baltimore. Hundreds of people were there in support of the school that Carl Stokes founded.
“We’re going to stay here, and we are going to fight for these young men,” Stokes said during the 2018 board meeting.
Despite the community support, Banneker Blake’s charter was not renewed.
According to the Baltimore City Schools website, the process for renewing a school’s charter primarily focuses on “Student Achievement” and “School Climate,” which includes things like chronic absences and enrollment trends. Stokes says, that just isn’t true.
“It was predetermined that Banneker Blake was going to close,” Stokes told Project Baltimore. “They didn't like our administrators.”
Stokes, a former City Council member, says the charter review process is supposed to be about student success, but it’s not. A Project Baltimore investigation may support that allegation.
When asked if students are not the priority, Stokes replied, “No, the paycheck is their priority.”
In January 2022, the Baltimore City School Board voted to renew the charter for ConneXions. ConneXions is a middle/high school in west Baltimore. During the first week of May, Fox45 News exposed how the school violated policies for grading and attendance.
Qwantay Spearman is a junior at ConneXions. He missed most of this school year because City Schools could not provide him with a nurse, which is required under his federally mandated IEP or Individualized Education Program.
Without a nurse, he could not attend school in-person, and ConneXions could not provide complete virtual learning either. However, according to his report card, Qwantay was marked present 33.5 days in the first quarter and even passed five classes.
“He shouldn't have any grades on there, because he has not been to school,” Qwantay’s mother, Latasha Phillips, told Project Baltimore.
Since North Avenue claims student achievement is the main focus, Project Baltimore wanted to know how ConneXions was doing when its charter came up for renewal. We compared the school to Banneker Blake, a school that went through the same process, and what we found was surprising.
Direct comparisons for charter schools are difficult. But Fox45 News analyzed recent data which does raise questions. Attendance at Banneker Blake, the year before it applied to be renewed, was 92 percent. At ConneXions, attendance was 72 percent. Chronic Absenteeism at Banneker, that same year, was 17 percent, while at ConneXions, it was 81 percent. In the three years prior to shutting down, Banneker Blake’s enrollment almost quadrupled from 78 in 2016 to 260 in 2018. The school was growing fast. At ConneXions, enrollment in the three years prior to its renewal, stayed about the same from 516 in 2019 to 526 in 2021.
In 2019, the Maryland State Department of Education released rankings for every school in the state. Banneker Blake earned three out of five stars, while ConneXions earned two.
City Schools’ own review of Banneker Blake rated the school “Effective” in Overall Academics. ConneXions was rated “Not Effective” in Overall Academics.
Stokes’s school was rated “Not Effective” in Operator Capacity. ConneXions did a little better, rated “Developing” in Operator Capacity. But “Governance” is the least important metric for a charter’s renewal, according to the Baltimore City Schools website.
“It tells me they don't really care, as well as they should, about the success of poor and black students in Baltimore City,” said Stokes.
So, why did North Avenue shut down Banneker Blake and renew ConneXions, if student performance is the top priority? Can the public trust that the charter renewal process is fair? City Schools declined an interview to discuss it. But said in a statement, "The annual review is a holistic process, dictated by Maryland law, that considers various measures in understanding the performance of school operators. Student achievement is clearly considered, as WBFF-TV found when visiting our website. However, it is also critical that school operators manage the school well, meet legal requirements and provide strong programs and support for all students, including young people with disabilities.
In the Operator Renewal Report, City Schools found the operator of Banneker Blake had several glaring deficiencies. For a clearer understanding of the Banneker Blake review, we urge Mr. Stokes and WBFF-TV to review not only the Operator Renewal Report, but the decision by the Maryland State Board of Education to uphold our findings."
“The crime problem in Baltimore is directly related to the under education of students in Baltimore City, directly related,” Stokes told Project Baltimore.
Stokes is now retired and living in north Baltimore. When he thinks about what happened, he says it makes him angry. Many of his former students were forced into lower-performing schools when Banneker Blake lost its charter, all because, he says, North Avenue didn’t like him.
“Listen, who's leaving Baltimore? Mostly black middle-class families with school-aged children,” said Stokes. “Why are they leaving? Because their kids can't get an education at Baltimore City Public Schools.”