The crowd at Tuesday night's public hearing to discuss the proposed closure of Eastwood Elementary Magnet School was more quiet than those of recent meetings, but residents were no less passionate about the message they delivered to the Baltimore County Board of Education.
"Keep Eastwood open" came across loud and clear from the majority of the nearly 30 speakers who signed up to address the board at the Dundalk High School gathering.
With rare exception, the speakers were passionate and emotional about keeping the small, intimate, close-knit neighborhood school open, and the few people who spoke in favor of closing Eastwood and merging it with Norwood Elementary and Holabird Middle schools were school system employees.
Linda Gossman, a Gray Manor resident who witnessed the closure of her neighborhood's elementary school some years ago, implored the school board to keep Eastwood open.
"An elementary school is a vital part of every community," Gossman said in her testimony. "It brings a community together, it brings parents and children together, it brings grandparents together."
Gossman believes the need to close a school and reuse the property for another purpose is because elected leaders "haven't used tax dollars well."
"Things get tough, and we look at what we can get rid of," Gossman said.
One Norwood Elementary School teacher said that, "with all due respect to parents, (teachers) have been educated in a traditional way, and here is what you need to know."
She told the audience that the school system's proposal "is the absolute best thing for our children."
The proposed pre-k to eighth-grade science, technology, engineering and math academy is the future of the community's children and will fulfill them socially and academically, the teacher said.
Norwood fourth-grade teacher Dawn Peake said that teachers were first concerned about their jobs and where they would work next year, but now, "Our fears are at ease."
In recognizing the comments made by many Eastwood parents that their small school is a family that looks out for one another, Peake said the newly merged school community would be three times stronger.
"As we embark on this exciting adventure, we're all in this together," she said.
One speaker said that school system officials are quick to point out that Eastwood students have "great opportunities" ahead of them, but he hasn't been able to get anyone to explain exactly what those opportunities are.
"Eastwood is being penalized for the sake of an over-crowded school and an underutilized school," he said, speaking of Norwood and Holabird, respectively.
Eastwood, the school being recommended for closure, is operating just about at capacity, with an enrollment of 191 students in a building rated to handle 197 students.
Norwood is about 90 students over capacity, and Holabird is nearly 400 students beneath capacity.
Speaker after speaker told school board members of their anger, disappointment, distrust and frustration with the process, the suddenness of the decision and the perception of that decision being made behind closed doors.
Many parents say the academy might end up being a good idea, but they are concerned the plan is being rushed through in too short a period of time, potentially setting the program up for failure.
And in the mean time, they said, the students who were experimented upon will not get a "do-over."
Parent Ericka Sapp said she is tired of students being used as guinea pigs at the whim of the school system.
She told school board members to "suck it up, make it work and quit wasting money."
Sapp wondered aloud why County Executive Kevin Kamenetz appears to have so much say in school system decisions, and why no other options were considered.
She too questioned the integrity of the process so far, and said such a major decision should involve a process in which officials "assess, develop, plan, implement and evaluate."
"It's not safe to use our kids as guinea pigs," she said.
Laura Frasca, the parent of an Eastwood student and PTA member, said she has one student in the school now and another looking forward to entering kindergarten in the fall.
"She's been looking forward to attending Eastwood for two years," Frasca said. "Closing Eastwood will destroy the essence of our program; why not model our school instead?"
She suggested creating the pre-k to eighth-grade STEM academy by merging Norwood and Holabird. Such a move would take care of the over-enrolled Norwood and under-enrolled Holabird while leaving the integrity of the Eastwood program in tact.
The smallness and intimacy of Eastwood is one of the reasons the program works so well, she believes.
"You cannot super-size us like a value meal at McDonald's," Frasca said.
Parents are also not happy with the possibility of third- and fourth-graders interacting with middle schoolers.
Ann Ritchie, a grandparent and retired teacher, reminded board members that, when school system officials wanted to remove sixth-graders from elementary school and create the middle school model that consisted of grades six, seven and eight (as opposed to seven, eight and nine of the old junior high school model), the rationale was based upon sixth-graders being too old and mature to be mixing with the younger students.
"Now you're telling us that it's OK to put fourth- and fifth-graders in middle school?" she asked.
While many community members believe they are the underdogs who have been left out of the process, and that the input they are now being allowed to give is too little too late in what they perceive to be a "done deal, at least one school board member is on their side.
"Oh, Eastwood has to say," board member and Dundalk resident Ed Parker said after the meeting. "We can have it all—we have to leave this great little school, and create a STEM academy.
"The center of this all has to be what is best for our kids for them to reach the potential they all have—not what's best for the budget, not what's good for one building or another."
School board President Lawrence Schmidt said the board is scheduled to vote on the matter at its March 5 meeting.
The board will accept additional written comments until then. Comments may be mailed to the board at 6901 Charles St., Towson, MD 21204.