City school board votes to delay Southside closing

The Baltimore school board voted Tuesday to delay the closing of a struggling Cherry Hill high school and proceeded with district recommendations to eliminate middle grades from three elementary programs.

The recommendations were part of the district's "Expanding Great Options" program, introduced by city schools CEO Andrés Alonso in 2009 to close the system's longest-failing schools.

One school, Southside Academy, would have closed at the end of the school year, but on Tuesday school officials presented a revised recommendation to allow the school to stay open until the end of June 2013.

Under the program, the schools chief has closed 13 schools — including one that will close this year — and several others have either merged or relocated in the past four years.

This year was markedly less radical, in part, because the system is preparing for a slew of closures under a large-scale plan to shutter its underused and dilapidated school buildings.

The CEO said Tuesday that the plan could include 20 to 30 schools, significantly more than the system made public last year.

Under the plan for the Cherry Hill school, students in grades 10 through 12 would stay at Southside Academy, but it will receive no incoming ninth-graders next year. Parents will also have the opportunity to voluntarily transfer their students.

The district recommended the school close after years of declining enrollment, popularity and achievement.

But after fierce opposition from a state delegate and the Cherry Hill community, where Southside opened a little more than a decade ago, city school officials said they would work with the school community on a long-range plan to create a successful high school that also preserves the community hub.

Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system, said the revised recommendation reflects the district "trying to stay true to the principles of our work, but also honor the community's concerns."

In articulate and impassioned pleas at public meetings, the Cherry Hill community — which is predominantly poor and black, and has experienced a dearth of educational options — said they wanted to work with the system to make the school better.

Late in the discussion Tuesday, it was revealed that keeping Southside open for one year would come at a cost. A similar plan to keep roughly 100 students at a school slated to close this year, Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship, cost $1.7 million for one year. There are 168 students at Southside, and a similar scenario could play out next year, school officials said.

City school board Commissioner David Stone drew from data showing that more than 60 percent of Southside students missed more than 20 days last year.

"If 60 percent of kids are going to miss 20 days or more, then who are we keeping Southside open for?" Stone asked.

Alonso said the year would uphold "sufficient good faith" to work with the community.

"Sometimes the obligation to some kids transcends everything," he said.

Cherry Hill residents said they were optimistic Tuesday that the community's message resonated.

"It's not ideal, but we understand that we had to compromise," said Eric Jackson, a Cherry Hill resident and Southside alum. "But no matter what decisions are made moving forward, we feel like we now have a stake in this."

Steuart Hill Academic Academy, Federal Hill Preparatory Elementary/Middle School and Moravia Park Elementary/Middle School would all scale back their programs to elementary school grades, while its middle school students disperse to better suited programs in the area.

Parents took issue with the fact that their middle-school students would have limited options because the district's annual school-choice process took place last fall.

Board members expressed similar concerns.

"If parents are not happy with the options available to them, we will adjust, " Edwards said.

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