By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
Akron Public Schools is ending the Stewart Africentric magnet school because enrollment plunged.
The school's fourth-grade class had just seven students this spring.
Total enrollment kindergarten through fifth grade was just 64 in March, which means the program is no longer sustainable as a separate school, said superintendent David James.
''The enrollment kept falling,'' James said. ''It's gone down a huge amount.''
About 10 teaching positions at Stewart were among the 84 teacher layoffs approved by the school board at a special meeting May 17. Returning teachers will be moved to other schools based on seniority.
Stewart Elementary School was converted to an Africentric magnet school in 2000 after a contentious debate and became open to all students in the district.
The school's highest enrollment as a magnet school was 197 in the 2003-04 school year, and it has steadily declined since, according to Ohio state records.
The school survived despite concerns that its approach was racially divisive and didn't result in strong academic gains.
Stewart received a state rating of ''academic watch,'' the equivalent of a D grade on its last state report card. The only state indicator out of 10 that it met was the one for attendance.
The year before, the school was listed in ''Academic Emergency,'' the state's lowest rating.
The program used the same curriculum and testing as the other elementary schools, but but infused traditional subjects with references to African culture and history.
The school also employed rituals and concepts such as respect for elders to teach discipline and responsibility.
The district closed the Stewart building and four other schools last year. The Africentric program was relocated to the new Crouse elementary building in West Akron as a ''school within a school,'' sharing the same principal.
Stewart occupied the second floor of the Crouse building.
Crouse is among the district's elementary schools that have been designed as community learning centers through a joint city-school construction project funded by the state and a dedicated city income tax.
The Ohio School Facilities Commission, which oversees the state's 59 percent contribution to building costs, will not fund a school with a projected enrollment of fewer than 350 students.
Stewart's enrollment on the last state report card, before the move to Crouse, was 123 nearly 96 percent black and all considered economically disadvantaged.
Stewart's enrollment this spring had fallen by almost half, James said.
The kindergarten and first-grade classes had only nine students each. The school had 13 second-graders and a dozen third-graders. Stewart's largest class was fifth grade with 14 students.
The Stewart students may either enroll in Crouse, return to their neighborhood schools or enroll in other elementary schools.
James said Crouse can easily accommodate the Stewart students.
The district will know better what to do with the vacant second floor this fall. Eventually, Crouse will add a sixth grade when Perkins Middle School is combined with the new Buchtel High School.
James said he spoke with some of the community members who are involved with the school as elders. They talked about keeping the Africentric concept alive with an afterschool program with tutoring and a collaboration with the University of Akron or Kent State University.
Parent Kimm Wilson said those proposals will not make up for the loss of Stewart.
''Reopen it,'' Wilson said. ''I'm not willing to let it go down. I'm just not.''
Wilson has a long history with Stewart. All five of her children have attended the school two before it became Africentric.
Her third child, a daughter who graduated this week from Firestone High School, was at Stewart when it became a magnet school. Another daughter is entering Firestone next year.
Her youngest child, a son, has been at Stewart since he was in kindergarten and will enter the fourth grade this fall.
His home school is Robinson elementary school on the city's east side. But Wilson enrolled her children at Stewart because she liked how the Africentric focus teaches black children their heritage and especially respect for elders.
''With the African-centered concept, an elder means something,'' she said. ''We want that knowledge, and we want to keep that going.
''Our kids have to face a lot of gang activity. We don't have to worry about them going to the gangs.''
Parents and community members are expected to meet at Crouse on Monday at 11:30 a.m. to discuss the closure.