While other city high school principals excitedly read off the names of colleges and universities their students will disperse to at the end of the school year, Denise Gordon fanned through a stack of acceptance letters with less enthusiasm.
"New Era, Dunbar, Ben Franklin, Carver, Edmondson, Digital, Mervo — a lot of New Era," she read.
Gordon, who has spent her eight years as a principal at Southside Academy, which closed its doors for good Wednesday, never thought she'd be sending her students to different high schools, faced with the school system's decision that they'd be better served somewhere else.
No principal imagines herself in such a position, said the 37-year educator, but as a school leader, you learn to take teaching moments as they come.
"You're not married to a building, you're not married to an office, you work for the community you're assigned to," Gordon said. "We've built relationships here, and it's hard. But wherever you go, you have to build a community and work just as hard for them."
It's a farewell message that she shared with her staff, and one that is resonating with a half-dozen schools in Baltimore, where the last day of school Wednesday meant the end of an era.
"I'm wishing my students well," Gordon said with a sigh and a smile. "I told them to call me if they need me. I know they're going to call."
Wednesday also marked the last day for Carroll County's students; Harford County schools closed Tuesday. The end of the school year for other area systems, including Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, is Friday.
This school year, the Baltimore school system focused on plans to dismantle troubled schools in the hope of assembling thriving, new ones.
Four schools, Baltimore Rising Star Academy, Garrison Middle, Patapsco Elementary/Middle, and William C. March Middle, closed Wednesday as part of the city's 10-year plan to upgrade school facilities.
Southside and another high school, Baltimore Freedom Academy, closed because of the recently revived emphasis by departing schools CEO Andrés Alonso on shuttering low-performing programs.
The fact that Cherry Hill, the neighborhood where Southside is located, also needs a new campus influenced the decision. The community's educational needs had long been neglected before the neighborhood fought for the school, which opened in 1998. Some Southside students worry that they'll be lost again.
"It won't be the same," said Taylor Harvin, an 11th-grader. Taylor will attend New Era Academy, which shares a building with Southside, but she maintained that "no school has teachers like this."
"The teachers really care about you when you need help," said Taylor, who transferred to Southside after her grades suffered at a much larger high school. "And at my other school, I never even saw my principal, and when I did, he didn't even say hi."
Montez Smith, a Southside 10th-grader who will also attend New Era, said he was "mad" about the closing and agreed that he was nervous about getting the attention he needed.
"At my other school, nobody really cared for me," Montez said. "Here, with a lot of teachers — we started getting cool, and my grades started getting better."
With lawmakers and vocal community members on their side, Southside publicly fought the 2012 recommendation to close the school. The district relented and decided to keep it open one more year.
"I had never seen anything like it before," Jeff Lordi, a teacher of two years, said of the community's rally to keep the school open. "They cared so much, and came out so strong. To stay was a no-brainer. I just had to be part of something that people cared so much about — see it through to the end."
In the year since, the school's staff was reduced by 50 percent, but about a dozen teachers decided to stay. About 100 students had dropped from the rolls since the year it was recommended for closing.
Those who remained grew closer, though, as the inevitable drew near.
"It kind of made for a positive experience because everyone who was here wanted to be," Lordi said.
Despite the district's assessment that the school's academic performance wasn't up to par, it had met state targets several years in a row for the number of its students passing the high school assessments.
But Gordon acknowledged that some of the school's data, such as its 60th-percentile attendance rates, were "in the toilet." And she couldn't stand in the way of a promise for better opportunities for Cherry Hill.
"I'm not in denial," she said. "We had challenges."
Other schools that closed Wednesday say data that the school system used to make its decisions did not reflect challenges they overcame.
Baltimore Freedom Academy, a charter school, learned in March that this school year would be its last, when the board voted to deny its license renewal.
Khalilah Harris, who helped open the school in 2003, said she left as executive director in April because she "could not watch something that I tried to build up be taken apart."
BFA pushed back against the system's charter renewal report, arguing that the process was flawed and that the district viewed the school through a narrow lens.
"Our school was punished for not playing the game to get [students] to pass these tests so that people could leave us alone and do the work that we should be doing, which is cultivating learning," Harris said.
Still, she reflected on fond memories from the first open house in 2003 to the first graduating class in 2007.
"Very early on, we felt like we were engaging in raising children," Harris said. "These [families] were agreeing to turn their kids over to us like they were handing their children over to family … to people who would look beyond numbers and letters and really help them flourish."
As a staff member and a parent of a BFA student, Rashawna Sydnor's concerns were three-fold as the end of the year drew near. She worried about her daughter, who will have to graduate from another school next year, her students, who could be deprived of the attention they so desperately need, and where she would find a new job.
"I couldn't focus on myself until I knew she was OK," said Sydnor, who had worked at BFA for one year and found a job at another school next year. "I figured that if the school board decided this wasn't the best place for her, she would need to be at the best."
Her daughter Pahge George was placed at City College, in what Sydnor called a smooth school-choice process for students.
While Pahge is looking forward to the move, she harbors some resentment about what spurred it.
"Relationships are everything," said Pahge. "What they didn't show in the report was how a teacher could take a student who hated school, who didn't want to come, and now they're on the top of their class. It's just not right."
That student, Pahge said, is her best friend, Shayna Ray. Shayna went from a "wild kid" to encouraging everyone to choose to go to City — finding herself the only one who didn't get in and sent instead to the lower-performing Patterson High School.
To cope with the disappointment, she will apply the most important lesson she learned from BFA.
"I'm not accepting Patterson, I want better," she said. "City is better. If I don't get in, I know I tried my hardest. It's sad, but you just have to suck it up."
The feeling is shared by staff members who will also leave BFA.
"The end of an era at BFA is bittersweet to me, full of accomplishment, disappointment and unfulfilled potential," said Corey Gaber, who had been affiliated with the school since 2007, the last two years as a teacher.
Gaber recalled how he watched students grow from shy self-doubters to fierce advocates and powerful public speakers and mentors.
But he also described a school recently where students were increasingly in upheaval and staff experienced "a revolving door of school leadership and a complete lack of support from North Avenue until the fate of our school was already sealed."
"There are better schools than BFA in Baltimore City," Gaber said. "There are also worse schools than BFA, even in its current iteration. Students with committed adult advocates in their life will likely end up in a better situation. Others will lose the peer support networks and strong relationships they've formed with teachers and will arrive at similarly chaotic, non-academic environments as the one they're leaving now."
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