Dozens of boys and girls stretched to a Taylor Swift song before an all-out dance session. Outside, a group of children did cannon balls and splashed in the pool. Others awaited the star attractions of the recreation center at Liberty Elementary School — the horses trotting on the front lawn.
For a time, it had appeared unlikely that kids would have any recreational activities this summer at Liberty Elementary. It was one of about 20 rec centers shut by the city as part of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's strategy to invest in fewer, higher-quality facilities.
But the Liberty center stayed open with the help of activists from the Howard Park and Central Forest Park community associations. The same thing has occurred at many of the centers closed around the city as groups and individuals stepped in to help. Even early critics of the mayor's plan now say that it has worked better than expected, with more children being served this summer than last.
More than 1,650 are signed up to attend city-run centers this summer. Another 780 children are enrolled in privately run camps at former city facilities.
Nakiya Holliday, 10, was one of about 50 students signed up at Liberty when the center opened this summer. She knew it would be good between the pool, the dancing, the computers and the horses.
"It's pretty fun," said Holliday, a rising sixth-grader, before bounding across the gym floor to get back to the action.
Not all rec centers have fared as well as Liberty, however. At least one closed soon after it began private operation and others remain closed as neighborhoods wait for a third-party partner to come along.
Councilman Bill Henry, who represents North Baltimore, said the city should remember that it must strike a balance between youth development and criminal justice.
For about 20 years, Henry said, the city has pumped more and more money into crime-fighting initiatives. He and many others say Baltimore must include robust investments in children as part of its public safety strategy.
"It's all important," Henry said, "and right now we just don't bring in enough tax revenue to cover all of the important things that we need to be providing."
In 1991, the city spent roughly $8.7 million to operate 76 recreation centers. The budget for police that year was $182 million. This year, the city will spend $10.6 million on its recreation centers and $324.9 million on comparable law enforcement programs. The administration notes that much of the growth in the police budget stems from salary increases.
The city continues to operate about 35 rec centers, down from 55 this time last year. The centers served about 1,600 kids in 2012.
No more closures are planned by the city, Rawlings-Blake said. She commended the private organizations that have stepped up to run the centers.
"We're making tremendous progress in transforming the system of dilapidated, small centers with inconsistent programming, inconsistent staffing, into a network of larger, high-quality community centers … that people want to go to," the mayor said.
Rawlings-Blake said the city plans to build 10 recreation centers over the next decade, aiming to open many of them in new schools.
She highlighted the Rita R. Church Community Center, named after a former councilwoman and scheduled to open this month. The building, which overlooks the Clifton Park pool, is a converted pavilion with Greek-style columns, exposed wooden beams, skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows.
The Church center is one of three new rec centers the city is building as part of a $19 million plan that includes renovating the Virginia Baker facility in Patterson Park.
Kim Trueheart, one of the activists who helps run the Liberty Rec and Tech Center, as it is now called, said the neighborhood centers are a community investment and the city has a responsibility to ensure that the facilities are successful.
"Our hard work and dedication to serving our children is paramount," she said. "We're putting in lots of hard work."
Trueheart's group took over the center in November under an agreement with city schools. A $20,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation helped make the summer camp possible, Trueheart said.