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Alumni say goodbye to Southwestern High

The Baltimore Sun

Southwestern High School was completely dark yesterday.

That wasn't supposed to happen. Yet.

A week before the last day of its existence, graduates of the past, from 1974 through 2007, converged on the school for its "all classes" reunion. They found the power had been out for hours and staff and students had just been sent home.

Undeterred, close to 40 alumni and faculty members gathered in the school's foyer, one of the only sunlit spaces in the sprawling, mostly windowless complex on a hill overlooking Mount Olivet Cemetery.

They didn't give up on the troubled school with the prison-like facade while they were students, and they weren't about to give up on it yesterday.

"We didn't want to let anyone down," said Principal Cecelia McDaniel as staff members grilled hot dogs outside in the stifling heat.

Southwestern closes when the school year ends this Friday. Its demise is part of a plan city officials developed to eliminate 19 city schools after the state threatened to cut construction funding if the city school system did not operate more efficiently.

Recent critics are familiar with Southwestern for its place among 11 failing schools the state tried to take over last year. Only 2.9 percent of its students, many of whom are past high school age, passed the English test required to graduate, and only 5.5 percent passed the algebra test.

But those problems were not in evidence yesterday. In good spirits, the alumni ignored the lack of electricity and crowded around a table piled high with old yearbooks, trophies and other memorabilia, including a huge plush saber-toothed tiger -- the school's mascot -- in the physical education office.

There were no yearbooks for the first graduating class, but 1974 alumni Shirley Baker of Elkridge and Ralph "Lee" Poling of Lansdowne said they remembered high school well enough without the heavy volumes. They were dating then. Now, separated from different spouses, they are romancing again.

They met in junior high but became friends when they started skipping classes at Southwestern together with a group of fellow students. When Baker's mother found out about the group truancy, she told all the other mothers -- except Poling's, because Baker hadn't turned him in, even though they had been using his car.

"I got my [expletive] beat," Baker said.

"Ha-ha," Poling said. "I didn't."

The reunion included a mix of younger alumni, such as 2006 grad Mapwint Phukoko, who started ninth grade at Southwestern a month after emigrating from Burma. At the time, she said, her English vocabulary did not extend far beyond "How are you?"

Teachers at Southwestern taught her all the English she needed to know to fit in by senior year, she said.

Even the man who delivered the bottled water to the reunion was an alum -- and the 1997 prom king, at that. "I didn't get home till 6 the next day," said Donnial Williams, then known as "Spanky."

Like Williams, Ruth Willis, who graduated in 1995, remembers when Southwestern High School occupied the entire 353,000-square-foot complex, instead of sharing it with other schools as it did in recent years.

"Months after she graduated, she became the school's registrar, a job she has kept for the past 12 years. During that time, she said, she could never bring herself to call all her old teachers by their first names. Now she is upset to see the school go.

Eliminating Southwestern, along with three other school programs that occupied the complex, and closing the Dr. Lillie M. Jackson special education building, will help the system reduce its school space by 15 percent, said the system's chief operating officer, J. Keith Scroggins.

The Southwestern academic program has been phased out over the past few years in anticipation of its closing. About 140 remaining underclassmen will be dispersed to different schools in the fall, McDaniel said.

The building will be given back to the city, which has not announced plans for it, according to Robin Allen, the school system's director of school and facilities planning.

Southwestern opened in 1971 with 1,650 students in grades seven through 10 -- a promising new life sciences magnet school in a building worth $10 million (about $50 million in 2006 dollars).

But during the school's first few days, racially motivated fights broke out, riling the community. Students were arrested, and white supremacists showed up to offer "help."

Since then, Southwestern has had a roller-coaster history. It boasted sports championships and alumni who made their marks in athletics, politics and music. But it also developed a persistent reputation for violence, which led Oprah Winfrey to broadcast her talk show from Southwestern in 1988 to address the nationwide problem.

"Southwestern got so much bad publicity as a school, and that's just from the point of view of the people outside of the school," said 2006 valedictorian Autumn Capers at yesterday's reunion. "We're all a big family."

"As long as the alumni go on to represent, then I'm fine. As long as they go on to do great things, then Southwestern will live on," she said.


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