The residents and redevelopers of East Baltimore agree that the $42 million school taking shape on 7 acres along Ashland Avenue symbolizes hope for the community.
But they disagree about which children should be able to attend the much-heralded new school.
The long-planned Elmer A. Henderson School, to be operated by Johns Hopkins and Morgan State universities, was designed to be a neighborhood anchor and a magnet for new residents.
Known as Henderson-Hopkins, the campus is part of the East Baltimore Development Inc. plan that also calls for more than 1,500 homes and 1.7 million square feet of laboratory, office and retail space next to the Hopkins hospital complex.
Many neighborhood residents thought they would have a chance to send their children to the school, which Hopkins officials vowed would be the best in Baltimore and developers called a "core, bedrock opportunity" of the revitalization project.
But some residents say their children have been shut out from coveted slots in the high-profile public school that the operators had called a "community school." School officials vehemently deny that students were intentionally kept out of the new school.
When it opens next school year, it will be attended primarily by students from outside East Baltimore, including children of Hopkins employees who were given priority enrollment over those who live in the neighborhood.
Sharon Williams struggled to explain to her daughter Faith why she could not attend a school so close to their North Chester Street home.
"I just told her that Johns Hopkins had certain people they wanted to come to the school," Williams said. "It makes me feel like I'm not worthy, but I don't want her to feel less than a person because of this. But it's hard when you live a block away."
Some residents say the operators should have done more to recruit children who live close to the school. Hopkins officials said they would learn from the process and do better next year.
Some parents said they learned at the last minute that families had to go through an extensive application and lottery process to secure a spot in the new school.
Others complain about the way the school's admission priorities were adjusted. For some neighborhood children, a distance of one to two blocks meant being on a waiting list instead of on attendance rolls.
"The notion that there was an effort to go around the community is offensive," said David Andrews, dean of Hopkins' School of Education, the primary operator of the school. "Wherever you live, you should feel you have the opportunity for your kids to get a good education. And when you don't, it's devastating."
Henderson-Hopkins operates much like a charter school, with enrollment based on a lottery process. But it is considered a "contract school," meaning it can limit enrollment by geography.
This year, the school received 332 applications for 120 open spots.
"We did this in the most fair way possible," Andrews said. "And if you didn't get in, it's because we had more applications than spots. There's no other way it could have happened."
Andrews said that Hopkins thought its outreach efforts were successful because of the number of applications it received, but vowed to do better next year.
EBDI officials maintained that they only had an obligation to reach out to families displaced by redevelopment and have met that obligation. Eleven students from families displaced by EBDI applied to the school and all were accepted.
The parents' criticism also highlights the disparity and despair that can arise in a school system that strives for choice and opportunity.
Officials from EBDI and Hopkins said the new school cannot be a panacea for troubles at the city's public neighborhood schools.