Julieanna Nelson-Saunders, 11, attends KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a public charter middle school in Baltimore.
Julieanna Nelson-Saunders, 11, attends KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a public charter middle school in Baltimore. - 
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Inside a small brick row house in northwest Baltimore, Md., Tiela Smith pulls on a parka, pink hat and gloves and a huge backpack. Then she heads out the door to walk one block to Langston Hughes elementary school.

But instead of going inside, she walks around the side of the building to a parking lot, where a yellow school bus is waiting. Langston Hughes closed last year, so Tiela, 8, now rides the bus a mile away to Arlington elementary. 

Tiela doesn’t mind, she said, because “when you don’t walk your legs don’t feel tired.”

Her mom Nieasha Paige, a former teacher’s aide, does mind. Paige is legally blind, and said she misses the convenience and peace of mind of walking her daughter to the neighborhood school down the street.

“It was a good school,” she said. Classes were small, everyone knew each other. At Arlington, she said, “it’s okay and everything, but it’s not like Langston Hughes.”

The reasons Langston Hughes closed are complicated. Academically, it was one of the best-performing schools in its impoverished neighborhood of Park Heights. But enrollment had fallen over the years – partly, many believe, from competition from nearby charter schools.

Tiela Smith, age 8, in front of Langston Hughes elementary school.
Tiela Smith, age 8, in front of Langston Hughes elementary school. - 

About two miles away from where Langston Hughes sits empty, another elementary school is thriving. KIPP Harmony Academy, part of the national network of KIPP charter schools, has almost 800 kids, from kindergarten through fourth grade. The school is big on purpose, said principal Natalia Anderson.

“We believe our parents should be able to be educational consumers, like folks can do in more affluent communities,” she said.

More parents around the country are choosing charter schools. In the last six years, enrollment has grown by more than sixty percent. The schools are expected to get a boost if Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Education, is confirmed. DeVos has spent much of her career — and millions of dollars — promoting school choice.

More than a quarter of charter school students are African American, but civil rights leaders are divided over their growth. In the fall, the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter school expansion, amid concerns the schools are diverting higher-performing kids — and resources — away from traditional public schools, without the same accountability.

“We see all across the country, charter schools expanding in ways that impoverish public education as a whole,” said NAACP president Cornell Brooks.

That position has put the civil rights group at odds with many black leaders, who see charter schools as an alternative to failing neighborhood schools, particularly for kids from low-income families.

“Charter schools are doing amazing work in some of the biggest cities in America, for some of the kids who didn’t win the parent lottery, have the least choice and have the least likelihood of having an amazing opportunity,” said Derrell Bradford, executive vice president of the education reform group 50Can.

Clearly many parents want that opportunity. KIPP Baltimore has a long wait list every year. Gloria Nelson still remembers the sigh of relief when her daughter, Julieanna Nelson-Saunders, got in.

“My neighborhood school is fine, however it wasn’t an option for me,” she said. “I needed her to be challenged.”

Julieanna, in sixth grade now at a KIPP middle school in the same building, said she is challenged.

“And the extra-curricular activities they have, like pre-law, it helped me discover that I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said.

That’s right. Pre-law in middle school. About 70 percent of the students come from the surrounding community, but advocates for traditional public education say it’s happening at the expense of neighborhood schools. The NAACP is holding hearings around the country to debate the issue.

In Park Heights, residents are hoping to build a public library where the beloved Langston Hughes Elementary has closed.

“For them to close down that school, I’m telling you it was the worst thing they could do for a community,” said George Mitchell, president of the Langston Hughes Community Action Association, which fought the closure. “It's going to take a while for us to recover from this.”

Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports