Monarch Academy Baltimore is a public K-8 charter school that does things a little differently. They don't have bells, no rows of desks, and no lockers. Instead, murals documenting Baltimore City, reflecting the communities the students live in.
"We have our own mini city," Principal Kiara Hargrove said.
For many students, it's become a home away from home as staff work to create a loving environment and focus on addressing the whole child. The old Coca Cola bottling plant in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello community was renovated by The Children's Guild, which operates the school, in 2013 and houses over 1,000 students and staff from all zip codes of Baltimore
"I feel like we are just like one family," 8th grader Amanii Lassiter said.
That family is in jeopardy. Baltimore City Public Schools recommended the school close in June because a review found students weren't meeting state test score standards. It was shocking news to the school community.
"I was totally shocked and obviously very upset. It's not the answer. Everything is being based on a standardized test. The standardized test is not gong to continue. Maryland that decided not to even use the test after next year and yet that’s the basis for closing the school. It just doesn't make any sense. It clearly doesn’t address the whole child. The trauma issues that the kids in the city, and particularly those in the school, are dealing with and it's really a huge mistake to close the school," Children’s Guild Chief Growth Officer Stephen Baldwin said.
Hargrove and Chief Academic Officer Nakia Nicholson agree that it's not the whole picture.
"Academics are important but you have to address the whole child first and when you address the whole child, then our kids are gonna get there," Nicholson said.
She says they focus on improvement over time. Nicholson finds hope in students like 3rd grader Kamari Hatchett.
"I used to have a hard time and a couple months into the first quarter in first [grade] I started going kind of good," Hatchett said.
Nicholson says he's being modest. She says he came to school struggling with social interactions, but now have lots of new friends and has learned to read and cope.
"If I have a problem, let go and move on," Hatchett said.
Hargrove says closing the school would re-traumatize the students, many who come from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, by sending them to new schools to make new friends.
"It's sad because I am gonna miss all my teachers, my friends and all the stuff I learned and I don't think the other school I'm gonna go to is gonna teach me everything," Hatchett said.
The review also found the schools is out of compliance in delivering required services for students with disabilities. Chief Organizational Learning Officer for the Children's Guild, Kelly Spanoghe, says clerical errors are what caused the low score and the school staff are following protocol.
"Because we individualize our approach for every child, we are really able to engage with the child at a deeper level and provide for the whole child. I think to not be able to continue to provide those services would be a detriment not only to the children, but to the community as well," Spanoghe said.
Since the recommendation came out, students and staff have been doing what they can to keep the school open, rallying twice outside of district headquarters to make their voices heard: that they are more than a test score.
"We're really unlearning behaviors that have been patterned over so many years and so when we get our kids who are new in the school, we are really teaching them how schools works, how to be a good neighbor, how to be a good citizen," Nicholson said.
"I have little siblings who are in lower grades and they like this school and it hurts me a lot to see them not wanna leave this school and go to another school and make new friends," 8th grader Kajinea Shelman said.
In the same City Schools review, Monarch was marked and developing in climate and effective in governance.
The school's report card put out last week by the State Department of Education gives them two stars overall, again showing low performance on the PARCC test and student growth. But school officials say almost 60% of city schools did the same as Monarch or worse. Monarch also has a slightly higher attendance average than the district.
"The last thing I want to do is send the students out to low-performing schools," Hargrove said.
Hargrove and Nicholson hope the Board of School Commissioners tasked with making the final decision vote to give them more time. Both are in the middle of just their second year at the school. They know the gaps and say they are working on them.
"We invest a lot of time in professional development in our teachers, on how to interact with students, how to keep them engaged," Hargrove said.
"We do believe in standardized assessments. We do believe in mastery, but we do acknowledge also that it takes time. That learning takes time and for some of our kids, it's gonna take more than a year," Nicholson said.
The board is holding a public hearing tonight from 7 p.m. - 9 p.m. to hear concerns about the potential school closures. Families rallied outside before going in to speak. Then the board will vote on whether to close the school on January 8th.
The Guild is also in process of buying 40 vacant homes in the area around the school to renovate and sell them as affordable housing, targeted for families and staff of Monarch. That program will continue even if the school closes.