Cherry Hill residents make final plea for Southside Academy

Sixteen-year-old NaTeera Smith would rather ride buses for three hours a day between her home in Belair-Edison and Southside Academy in Cherry Hill than start over at a new school.

She lived near Southside when she entered ninth grade but has since moved, choosing to stay at the struggling school despite the commute. But, going into her senior year, she may not have that option. the city school board is considering closing Southside in June. Catrina Taylor, Smith's mother, said she may end up home-schooling her daughter.

Smith, Taylor, and about 120 other parents, students, teachers and alumni made their final pleas to school board members Saturday, as the panel considers closing close Southside and eliminating middle-school grades at three other city schools.

The changes are emotional for the communities, attached to the schools by decades of history and faced with what they see as an unfair process for choosing new schools for their children. For the school board, the closures are the fourth attempt to implement schools CEO Andrés Alonso's plan to overhaul struggling schools and reinforce high-performing ones.

Saturday's hearing was the second and last on the issue. School board members assured attendees they would take public input to heart, and community members vowed to keep pressing officials up to an expected March 27 vote on the closures.

"This is the last public hearing, but this isn't the last time you'll hear from us," Eric Jackson, a 2004 Southside alumnus, told the board. About half of the people at the meeting— and most of those who spoke — came in support of Southside, waving signs and standing in unity each time one of them addressed the board.

Southside is up for closure because its enrollment and achievement have fallen. The school's pass rate on state High School Assessment tests has fallen from 30 percent in the 2007-2008 school year to 13.8 percent in the 2010-2011 year. Enrollment dropped from 341 students in 2009 to 274 students in 2011.

But the main factor in its potential closure is the school's low popularity across the system, Tisha Edwards, Alonso's chief of staff, said. Thirty-four eighth-graders across the district have listed Southside as their first or second choice for fall 2012, down from 77 students in 2007.

Supporters of Southside urged the school board to look beyond the school's declining performance and help it to turn around.

"Do they need a state-of-the-art building, or a family that sees beyond their low HSA scores?" Southside teacher Irene Barrientos asked the board members.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Democrat speaking on behalf of the General Assembly delegation representing Cherry Hill, urged the board members and community to work together in a "transition work group" should Southside be closed.

Parents at the three schools slated to lose their middle-school grades — Federal Hill Prep, Steuart Hill Academy and Moravia Park Elementary — criticized the school board for informing them of the changes too late in the 2012-2013 school selection process. The first round of opportunity for students to choose schools has passed.

In Federal Hill, the change won't affect affluent families who start sending their children to private schools in sixth grade, said Kira Pogue, a mother of two boys at Federal Hill Prep. But it will put her family and others like it in a bind.

"I am not afforded those opportunities," she said.

City school board President Neil Duke said the body would work to ensure those families are served and that the Cherry Hill community is taken care of.

"You always have to take into account the concern expressed by the community," he said.

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