In an emotional meeting between Baltimore city school system officials and the high school community Wednesday night, parents, students and Cherry Hill community advocates--including a state delegate--promised a fierce fight against the district's recommendation to close the struggling high school--and pride of the community--in June.
He even vowed to ask the governor for support if he had to, which he told school officials “wasn’t a threat, unless it had to be.”
“Let it be known, that we’ll work with you, but we’ll work against you if we have to,” Stukes said, while a packed room clapped and chided central office representatives.
The plan to close Southside was in city schools CEO Andres Alonso's fourth-year recommendations to overhaul failing schools and programs under his annual district restructuring program called "Expanding Great Options."
This year’s plan seemed markedly modest compared to the beginning of Alonso’s tenure, when the schools chief orchestrated dozens of closures and mergers throughout the city, rooting out schools that had been failing for decades.
Southside, a school that has been open for just over a decade, was the only school identified for closure in this year’s recommendations. Three elementary/middle schools—Federal Hill Prep, Moravia Park, and Steuart Hill Academy—were recommended to drop their struggling middle school grades.
Last year, the system recommended closing just one school, the Institute of the Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship, while others underwent internal overhauls like replacing staff and implementing new programs and curriculum.
There was virtually no opposition to those recommendations, with less than a dozen people showing up to public meetings, and some even thanking the system for the chance to improve.
Not this year.
More than 50 people packed the library at the school in Cherry Hill, some filing in late from work to make the 5:00 p.m meeting. The predominantly poor, black, close-knit, neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore vowed that that they wouldn’t be the next victim of data points that don’t tell the story of a community that had long been deprived of educational options for its children, and is now proud to have graduates from its very own neighborhood high school.
“It took us such a long time to get adequate education in this community, why close the school instead of making it better?” Juanita Ewell, a Cherry Hill resident of 66 years, asked school officials Wednesday night.
“If you look around, we don’t have much here,” said Onix Reyes, a Southside sophomore, motioning toward the school’s cramped library that had aged books and little technology. “If you go to Edmondson and Poly, they have two times the resources. Instead of shutting us down, help us.”
Tisha Edwards, Alonso’s chief of staff, challenged parents on what was “adequate,” presenting data, that she said illustrated that “the school is on a downward decline on all the major indicators.” Those indicators included enrollment, popularity in the school-choice process, and critical test scores like the High School Assessments—a graduation requirement.
“We know that closing a school is hard for the community,” Edwards said. “But, we were at a point where [the achievement] is not adequate.”
For example, just 15 percent of its first-time test takers passed the High School Assessments and only 14 percent total passed overall, after numerous attempts, in the 2011 school year. That’s a decline from 30 percent in 2008.
“It’s a problem if a senior graduates from high school and cannot pass the same exam as an eighth grader,” Edwards added. “That’s a problem. That’s not adequate.”
The conversation then shifted to the crowd peppering officials with questions about what the district did to help the school from getting to this point.