Cherry Hill community readies to fight for its high school

As of Wednesday, the Cherry Hill community has put North Avenue on notice: The gauntlet has been thrown in the battle for Southside Academy High School.

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.

“When you mess with my children, sure enough, you’re messing with me,” said Delegate Melvin Stukes, of Baltimore, who has long advocated for schools in Cherry Hill. Stukes has also led successful campaigns over the years to stop five of the neighborhood’s schools from closing.

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.

“You’re referencing a downward trend all of these years, which means at some point, someone didn’t step in,” said parent, Umar Abdul-Hamid. “So, what happened?”  

Edwards said the district had been in communication with the school’s leadership about appropriate interventions, and it was the school’s responsibility to carry them out with support.

“It’s their job to come up with a plan, and our job is to make sure that plan is working,” Edwards told the group. “I know that you have a group of hardworking people in your building. But you still haven’t been able to do what we need to do.”

Other parents asked why, if the school’s leadership wasn’t able to push the school in the right direction, the school system didn’t make the same data presentation earlier.

“Where you been?” Shirley Parker, the grandmother of a senior, who volunteers at the school asked Edwards. “I’ve been here every day and I’ve never see you before. We don’t need you here after the fact. We understand you brought the problem to our attention, but where is the solution.”

Parker joined others in expaining how the school wasn't given credit for its improvements, hardworking teachers who stay everyday after school to help them, and the parents who come in and clean the floors everyday.

“Don’t come in here like this is a done deal,” she added. “We’re good listeners, but we’re better fighters.”

Community leaders also criticized the system for not taking other factors into consideration, which could have been discussed had the district consulted with the community's leaders.

The system said it had a series of meeting and had formed a focus group. Public meetings are held before the school board votes on the recommendations, which it is scheduled to do on March 27.

Michael Middleton, chairman of the Cherry Hill Community Coalition, a group that is working on a master plan to revitalize the neighborhood, said that despite collaborating with the system on community concerns before, he found out about the recommendation from the media.

He said as a result, officials didn’t take into consideration that 40 percent of the community was living in public housing, which would contribute to a more transient and challenged population, and account for some of the enrollment drops.

“Cherry Hill is a low-income community of public housing,” Middleton said. “The very nature of public housing is to move in, get on your feet, and move out. But that discussion doesn’t take place. No one thought about the needs of the community, and we object to that.”

Middleton added that he also believed the system was using whatever criteria worked best to justify the schools it wanted to close. For instance, he pointed out that while the system has used federally mandated AYP targets in the past to close down schools, the emphasis on High School Assessment scores was strategic.

 “Cherry Hill was built on where we can put black folk to get them out of the way, and we don’t want to be pushed any further,” he said. “We will fight.”

Some parents said they believed there was a campaign against the school, as it was often referred to as the “bad school in Cherry Hill.”

Some parents said they were discouraged from applying to the school, which has about 274 studentts, when they attempted to enroll their students.

Stukes said he received reports that students with disciplinary problems were told, “if you want to act like an animal, go to the zoo—Southside Academy.”

“That’s why all of your enrollment numbers are wrong,” said Kin Lane, who said her daughter placed Southside as her first choice, but was sent to Digital Harbor instead. She later transferred her to Southside.

“Students definitely don’t get their first choice if it’s Southside,” Lane said.

Edwards refuted claims that the system was conspiring against the high school for any other reason that its struggle to properly prepare students with a high school education that was up to state standards. She told the group that every adult in the room had to take some responsibility for the school getting to the point of failure.

“There is no ulterior motive,” she said. “There’s nobody sitting around targeting anybody.”

Parents said that the two nearest options for Southside students—Benjamin Franklin High School and New Era Academy—didn’t appear to be higher quality schools than Southside.

And others worried about longstanding gang tensions between Cherry Hill and the Brooklyn neighborhood, where Benjamin Franklin is located. “If my daughter goes, she will be in a jungle,” said Tara Harvin, the parent of a 10th grader who transferred to Southside from Carver last year. “It’s a war. I’m actually afraid.”

After the meeting ended, the group immediately began planning for the next steps. Many will attend a public meeting next week before the school board.

Stukes also encouraged the group to begin finding students who have left the school, to get enrollment back up as part of its campaign to save Southside. That tactic has worked in the past in saving other schools, he said.

“It will be one hell of a fight,” Stukes told the crowd. “That fight will not come from high voices, emotional roller coasters. We got work to do, and a short amount of time.”

The city school board is expected to vote on the recommendations March 27.

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