Year-old school a small success

A+: Even some who had asked for a high school in Cherry Hill thought Southside Academy would fail. The school surprised them all.

June 16, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Southside Academy's seven teachers set the ambush for their principal yesterday, and Peggy Jackson-Jobe, opening the door to the high school's conference room, walked right into it.

"Surprise!" the faculty shouted, beginning a celebration of an experiment in Baltimore city public education -- and the woman leading them through it.

Southside Academy opened in the fall in Cherry Hill, the city's first new public high school in seven years, with even its backers raising doubts about its prospects. It was billed as a test of the value of small class sizes and neighborhood activism in education reform.

The unusual party -- the day after school ended, with teachers pooling money to pay for their boss' bash -- honored the unexpected results of that test. Even skeptics concede that, so far, Southside has passed.

This year's first students -- 55 ninth-graders from the surrounding neighborhood -- made extraordinary progress on the Maryland Functional Tests, which measure basic skills required for graduation. While only one of the 55 ninth-graders passed the functional test in math -- the most difficult test -- at the beginning of the year, all but five had passed by the end.

At zone high schools -- such as Southern, where Cherry Hill students have traditionally gone -- the pass rate for ninth-graders has hovered around 40 percent.

"Amazing," says Gary Thrift, a former area superintendent who helped recruit Jackson-Jobe.

At yesterday's lunch, he told teachers to brace themselves for visits from the State Department of Education, which "will soon be down here, asking you how you did it."

Before school opened in August, Cherry Hill community leaders were demanding a high school strong enough to attract middle-class homeowners to a neighborhood tackling poverty and crime. Many of those leaders appeared convinced that the school would fail.

Parents petitioned the school board for a year's delay, pointing out that no curriculum was in place. The most aggrieved called the American Civil Liberties Union for legal advice. Some community leaders complained that the new School 181 lacked laboratories and would have to share space with Arnett J. Brown Middle School, occupying its third floor. Others questioned whether Jackson-Jobe, an elementary school principal, had the right experience to run a high school.

The new principal pushed ahead. Southside began with only ninth-graders. The school intends to add one grade a year until the first class graduates in 2002.

Jackson-Jobe, 50, moved quickly to exploit her advantages. A Cherry Hill native whose mother lives in the neighborhood, Jackson-Jobe chatted up old friends and recruited an advisory board, which helped draft a rigorous environmental sciences curriculum, heavy on lab work and math. Charismatic in front of an audience, she held orientations and boldly promised to create "a national model for a high school program."

With a small staff, Jackson-Jobe had the flexibility to supervise her teachers directly and establish her high standards. All students were required to keep journals in every class and write every day. Every student should be ready for college, whether he or she ultimately chooses to go or not, she said. In math, she told teachers, the first class should be ready to take calculus in 12th grade.

"I must admit, the high school has been a pleasant surprise," 6th District City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes said this spring. He had been among the early skeptics. "The principal has outdone herself."

Students and teachers say they have never seen anything quite like the Jackson-Jobe treatment. Worried that her female students were insufficiently polite, she instituted Miss Peggy's Ladies, a popular after-school charm class. When some of the boys grumbled about the lack of sports programs, the principal was sympathetic but then added, "The focus here is not on athletics."

Jackson-Jobe, students say, softened even her toughest criticism with a trademark phrase, "I just love being your principal."

"She's different. The whole year was different," says Keith Marcelin, 15. He was surprised to find himself spending after-school hours in LaShaviar Burns' algebra class, trying to catch up and enjoying it. "I learned more in school this year than any year previously."

Judy Graham-Barbour, a special education teacher, said she had been so dispirited last year that she contemplated retirement. But at Southside, Jackson-Jobe's advice on teaching was "more detailed and constructive" than she had ever received. She could not imagine leaving.

Luan Nguyen, who was driving a United Parcel Service truck in Pennsylvania before Southside hired him to teach English, says the principal persuaded him to "model" correct answers on the board, and student writing improved.

"It's not me. The fact is that smallness works," says Jackson-Jobe. "We had students with a lot of needs, but we had teachers who bought into the vision and had the time to help with those needs."

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