No plans have been finalized, no mandates issued, and no votes taken to end the Rosa International Middle School program and make other rather radical changes to the structure of public education in Cherry Hill.
But some members of the school community are enraged by the very idea of converting Rosa, one of the district’s marquee schools, into a stand-alone, township-wide “sixth grade center” as part of a reorganizing process called "Cherry Hill Public Schools 2020 - A Clear Vision for the Future."
If Rosa is transformed into a sixth-grade center, “what would be lost would not only be the incredible staff, and the incredible music and drama program, but the whole environment, which is so warm and kind,” says Gabrielle Hanover, 14, who wrote and posted the Change.org petition. A 2016 Rosa grad who’s a freshman at Cherry Hill East, she credits Rosa with helping her gain the confidence to perform on stage.
Other supporters are stunned that Rosa, which opened in 1999 and currently serves 800 students in grades six, seven, and eight, seems to be morphing from a magnet into a target.
And they’ve yet to hear a compelling reason why this particular building is so essential to the future of the district that the successful program within it must be sacrificed.
“Rosa has that special something. It’s a wonderful community,” says Sharmila Singh, whose son is a student there. “Yes, we need more facilities, and all-day kindergarten [programs]. But there’s no reason to eliminate a middle school. There’s no reason to destroy what works.”
Says Colleen Harron-Horiates, a former school board member and the mother of two Rosa graduates: “My children received an amazing, world-class educational experience … it is unfortunate that other people’s children will never have the opportunity.”
For the district to even consider repurposing the school, she adds, “is unfathomable.”
So far, the 2020 vision for the future that is emerging from meetings, discussions, and online input taken from what Superintendent Joseph Meloche estimates are hundreds of stakeholders is largely focused on ameliorating the 11,300-student district’s long-standing east-side/west-side divide.
In these “conceptual discussions,” Meloche says, a reorganization also needs to accommodate Cherry Hill’s ever-changing demographics — within the limitations of the district’s aging physical plant.
South Jersey’s signature suburb hasn’t built a new school since 1970; the oldest, Kingston Elementary, was constructed in 1955.
And the rivalry between, and differing reputations of, high schools East (1967) and West (1956) symbolize Cherry Hill’s long struggle to provide an education of equal quality to every township student, regardless of which side of I-295 he or she happens to live on.
But making one of the two high schools a ninth- and 10th-grade building, and the other a facility for juniors and seniors, is just chatter on social media, a rumor that hasn’t even risen to the level of a “conceptual discussion,” insists Meloche.
Converting Rosa would, however, change Carusi and Beck, its two middle-school siblings, into exclusively grades seven and eight buildings. And making two of the township’s 12 elementary schools into full-day kindergarten centers — one on the east side, the other on the west — would bring students from many neighborhoods together and “help break the divide,” the superintendent says.
I’m not so sure a sixth-grade center and two all-day kindergarten buildings would somehow overcome the development patterns and changing demographics of recent decades. But I also don’t buy the suspicion among some that Meloche is using the 2020 process as a way to abolish a program he didn’t originate and views as less than egalitarian (students must apply for admission to Rosa).
“There’s no intention by the board or anybody in the administration to try to destroy” the school, he says during Lunch with the Superintendent, a weekly livestream video, which is available on YouTube.
“There’s an evolution that has to occur.”
During an interview, Meloche also offers some praise for the school that may well evolve out of existence: “What I do like most about Rosa is the sense of community that is instilled in students and parents and staff … and that is maintained after the children” graduate, he says.
But he also notes that the Rosa program was designed in the 1990s, “when the move toward middle school was the move [school districts made] to go forward.”
Rosa, he says, “was an answer to an issue that existed then.”
Now the district again sees Rosa as an answer — but this time, as a piece of real estate needed to implement a larger plan.
I can recall how a larger plan led to decisions the Cherry Hill district made in the 1970s, when postwar growth had sputtered to a stop and enrollments were falling.
I was covering the town for a local weekly (RIP, Cherry Hill News), and I wrote about west-side neighborhoods waging a spirited but ultimately losing battle to save their neighborhood schools.
In the end, Erlton was torn down and Hinchman and Coles were among those sold off. Enrollments later rose, and now the district finds itself without the capacity to add full-day kindergartens in all of its elementary buildings.
The two all-day kindergarten schools and the sixth-grade center envisioned by the 2020 process may well be fine ideas.
But dismantling Rosa is not a solution. Particularly given the fact that Rosa itself isn’t the problem.