High school opens in city with promise Cherry Hill facility enrolling 9th-graders this year, others next

'This school better work'

Unnamed institution seen rescuing area in South Baltimore

August 30, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Tomorrow, for the first time in seven years, Baltimore will open a new public high school, a hastily planned and strikingly small concoction brewed with a mix of politics, community activism and educational policy.

School 181 does not have a name, but it is generating high expectations in its south city neighborhood, Cherry Hill, that might prove difficult to achieve.

Several leaders here believe that an effective high school should do nothing less than transform the community by attracting dozens of middle-class homeowners to a neighborhood working to overcome a reputation for poverty and crime.

"This school better work," said 6th District Democratic City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, who sees School 181 as a companion to two current projects -- a revamped shopping center and a new housing development -- that could revive the neighborhood. "If the school doesn't have a top program, people won't risk coming to Cherry Hill, and that will be a big blow."

It is hard to judge the prospects of a school as idiosyncratic as 181. No high school in Charm City, past or present, provides a precedent. Unlike most city schools, 181 does not have its own building; instead, to eliminate start-up costs, 181 is moving into a mostly empty, three-story building on Seamon Avenue that also houses Arnett J. Brown Jr. Middle School.

The high school will start with freshmen and add one grade a year until the first students graduate in spring 2002. And while the class that begins tomorrow will consist of 68 ninth-graders from Cherry Hill, School 181 next fall will draw students from around the city with two very different magnet programs: one for students who wish to enter the work force, the other for Baltimore youths bound for college.

The 15-month-old city school board sees 181 as an important, early test of its guiding philosophy on high schools: reduce their size. The school will be the smallest public high school in Baltimore, with total enrollment of no more than 300 students and classes of fewer than 20.

Dropout 'crisis'

"The number of students we lose between ninth grade and graduation is a crisis," said Dorothy Siegel, a school board member and a former Towson State vice president. "The way to tackle this with existing resources is to break schools into smaller pieces."

School 181 represents a rejection of such zoned high schools as Southern, where the dropout rate has alarmed administrators and classes have between 30 and 35 students.

Southern's crowding and its mix of 1,600 students from across South and Southeast Baltimore is too volatile. In some cases, neighborhood turf fights spilled into Southern and the surrounding Federal Hill area.

Backing from Schmoke

In Cherry Hill, community activists had been asking the city to create a local alternative to Southern for years. In 1996, they won the backing of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and school officials promised to study the idea.

That was the last news many in Cherry Hill heard until March, when school officials, citing the crowding at Southern, announced that Cherry Hill ninth-graders would attend a new high school in the fall.

Many community leaders, while happy to have a school, were unnerved by the announcement, which took place in Brooklyn, the mostly white neighborhood to the southeast.

Arnett Brown Middle School, which had 225 students in a building designed for 900, had the space for a new school, but was there enough time to repair several rotting bathrooms and science labs? They wanted a high school, but could a curriculum be designed in five months?

Pleas for more time

In June, local activists and politicians asked the school board for a year's delay.

"A change of this nature should not be rushed," state Sen. George W. Della Jr. said.

But for much of the spring and early summer, Cherry Hill parents and activists said, school officials would not return their calls. As frustration grew, concerns about 181 took on racial tones.

Cherry Hill residents had asked for a citywide high school, in the belief that good students from other neighborhoods would push their children to greater heights. School officials said in the spring that 181, at least at first, would accept only students from Cherry Hill.

Some residents wondered at a community meeting in June whether the school board's motive in creating 181 was not to help Cherry Hill but to ease concerns about crime in mostly white Federal Hill by making Southern less black.

One parent and activist, Cathy Brown of Cherry Hill 2000, a community planning group, said, "I didn't want to make this a race issue, but on this high school they're not giving us a lot of room."

A handful of parents, suggesting the new school was "segregationist," called the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said its executive director, Susan Goering. "It's such a curious situation that we are watching to see what's what," she said.

Locally known principal

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