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City residents plead their case for school targeted for closure

Andres Alonso

Armed with picket signs and passion for their schools, Baltimore residents packed the district's headquarters Tuesday night, pleading with school board members to preserve the programs that CEO Andrés Alonso has recommended be closed or dismantled.

Southside Academy High School near Cherry Hill is the only school identified for closure this year, due to years of declining enrollment and achievement. Three other elementary/middle schools may lose their middle school grades. This marks Alonso's fourth year of overhauling struggling schools under his annual restructuring program, "Expanding Great Options."

Parents, students and residents asked the board to consider Cherry Hill's history as a poor neighborhood with limited educational options, and the challenges it continues to grapple with as a result.

"We as a community deserve the right to determine our own destination," said Michael Middleton, chairman of the Cherry Hill Community Coalition, an organization that has been working on a master plan to revitalize the neighborhood.

Middleton also took issue with the group's not having been consulted on the recommendation for Southside. "For staff to come in and suggest something that changes the fabric of our community, it's insulting," he said.

Students also offered emotional testimony about the message that the recommendations send to students.

"It belittles us as students, and makes us believe we are failures," said Deja Matthews, a student who left Western High School to go to Southside, where she is now SGA president.

Matthews told the board that she researched the school options that the district has identified for displaced Southside students and found that those schools do not offer Advanced Placement courses.

"Putting us somewhere else," she added, "would take away many opportunities many of us would have next year."

"We recognize that communities are impacted by these decisions ... and especially Cherry Hill, which has been politically and geographically isolated so long. But at the end of the day it's about what's best for students. That's going to shape our decision," said school board President Neil Duke.

Alonso has recommended that three elementary/middle schools — Federal Hill Prep, Moravia Park and Steuart Hill Academy — drop their struggling middle school grades and open more seats for elementary school students.

A parent representative of Moravia Park, which is bulging at 1,030 students and serves an international community, said parents are upset that its middle school students missed the district's school-choice process, which took place in the fall, and would have limited options for next school year.

"There was no choice given to any of our middle-school children," said Cecilia Johnson, president of the school's Parent Teacher Community Organization. "What does that say to our community?"

A second public hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon Saturdayat city school headquarters, 200 E. North Ave. The board will vote on the recommendations March 27.

erica.green@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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