At Western, much ado about... what?
I sat through more than two hours of the meeting that City Councilwoman Sharon Middleton called at Western last night for system officials to explain their plan to put a new all-girls middle school in the building for two years. About 200 people were there. At the end of two hours, I still had trouble understanding what the problem is, except that students and alumnae of an excellent school are extremely defensive about it.
According to a slide in a PowerPoint that Dr. Alonso presented at the beginning of the meeting, Western's enrollment has declined from 1,400 in 1993 to 800 today. Its capacity is 1,300. There have been extensive heating problems in the building shared with Poly -- two of the four boilers don't work at all -- but the school is not eligible for state construction money because its enrollment is too low. The plan is to increase enrollment for two years by placing the new Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women in the building: next year with a sixth-grade class, the year after with sixth and seventh. In the meantime, Western will be charged with coming up with a plan to increase its enrollment over the long term. Alonso said he's open to the idea of extending Western to the middle grades (with its admissions requirements) if the school supports it.
Opposition to the temporary placement of the new school is fierce, but the reasons given for the opposition contradicted each other. On one hand, people in the long line of speakers said they didn't want a school without admissions requirements in their building, essentially saying it would ruin the culture of Western. (The new school, which will eventually serve grades six to 12 in a permanent location, is being modeled on a school in East Harlem with a 100 percent graduation and college placement rate.) On the other hand, they were afraid the new school would provide unnecessary competition for Western and put the school out of business that way.
To me, the low point of the night happened when Alonso asked the principal of the new school, Lorna Hanley, to come to the stage to talk about her program. There was a gasp in the room -- people clearly didn't know the principal was there -- and a few of them booed. Others tried to compensate by clapping tepidly.
At the end of two hours, with the line of people to speak still extending midway through the auditorium, Middleton announced that Alonso had to leave and his many cabinet members in the audience would continue answering questions.