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Baltimore City Schools End Virtual Elementary Program

Facing budget cuts, Baltimore City Public Schools will convert a virtual learning program for students in second through fifth grades into a city school, so it will be eligible for state funding and other resources.

Baltimore virtual program
Ahsha Jeffries, parent from Northeast Baltimore, attends a rally outside North Avenue to protest the closing of a city virtual school program.
Karl Merton Ferron/TNS
(TNS) — The Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners opted Tuesday to end a virtual online program’s services for elementary students and to close Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy West.

Charm City Virtual will no longer teach students in second through fifth grades. Students from the PORT Virtual Learning Program, which currently serves Baltimore high schoolers, will join Charm City Virtual’s middle schoolers under one program.

City school commissioners also voted to convert the online program into a city school, which makes it eligible for state funding, state accountability ratings and other resources like meals and health services.

Charm City Virtual was created with federal funds offered during the coronavirus pandemic. Those emergency relief funds for elementary and secondary schools expire this year and several Maryland districts have since closed their virtual learning programs. Baltimore City is one of few districts in the state applying to make a virtual school permanent, said Sonja Santelises, CEO of the school system.

The commissioners approved the plan to turn the program into a school for middle and high school students in a 7-2 vote with one absence. Commissioner Kwamé Kenyatta-Bey, who made a failed motion to make all grades eligible for the virtual school, and Commissioner Ashley Esposito voted no.

Santelises said she’s taken an “arduous route” by figuring out how to afford to keep virtual learning in the district despite financial constraints.

“We need to figure out how to do this in a way that is sustainable because it does none of us any good to have a model that is not fiscally sustainable,” Santelises said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We are under an outsized pressure as a school district to prove that we can do things in a fiscally responsible way.”

Parents and students of Charm City Virtual said the small but beloved program has changed students’ relationship with learning, particularly for students with medical conditions and emotional needs. Other parents say they prefer online school because their children were bullied.

At a rally outside school headquarters this month, parents described being devastated by the loss of elementary grades. Public outcry over the eliminated grades and discussion of the commissioner’s vote dominated the board’s six-hour meeting Tuesday.

Ahsha Jeffries, whose daughter is a fourth grader at Charm City Virtual, said parents are “ramped up” after Tuesday’s vote and plan to continue to organize around ways to stop the closure.

“The fight isn’t over,” Jeffries said Wednesday.

Allowing Charm City Virtual’s 138 current elementary students to continue their classes would cause a $1.3 million budget deficit, said Angela Alvarez, executive director of the Baltimore City Public Schools. About 520 middle and high school students attended a virtual program this year.

“We wish there was a scenario where we could keep everything and have everything,” Alvarez said. “That’s just not the reality of what [Santelises’] decision had to be.”

Testimony from families moved Santelises to revise her plan to retain Charm City Virtual’s incoming fifth grade students for one year before the enrollment is limited to sixth through 12th grades in academic year 2025-26. About 50 students will have to return to their neighborhood schools or find other schools for next academic year.

The Maryland State Department of Education has to approve an application to turn the virtual learning programs into a school for sixth through 12th grades.

By law, prekindergarten and kindergarten students cannot attend virtual schools. Charm City Virtual doesn’t teach first graders.

At the Tuesday meeting, commissioners also approved closing Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy West and sending its high school students to Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, a co-ed high school that focuses on the arts. The two schools already shared a building in West Baltimore.

Bluford Drew Jemison, an all-boys middle and high school, has seen a 63 percent drop in middle school enrollment since 2019 to just 42 students this academic year. The school, which focuses on science, technology, engineering and math, had only 98 high schoolers, for a total of 140 students, this year, a 37 percent decline overall.

“It will be bittersweet, but it’s also for the best for my boys to join and collaborate with Augusta Fells,” said LaWanda Wilson, principal of Bluford Drew Jemison.

The school’s middle school students will have to attend a different one next year. City officials identified three potential options: Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School, Booker T. Washington Middle School and Empowerment Academy, a charter school.

Santelises praised the two principals for coming up with the idea to merge their high school students.

“You truly model what selfless leadership looks like,” Santelises said.

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