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.
Trueheart said the goal is to make the center a comprehensive community resource that will provide workforce development, health screenings and a food bank. The horseback riding program is run by City Ranch Inc., a nonprofit that also operates a separate camp at Liberty.
But not all of the rec centers taken over by private groups have succeeded. The Lillian Jones center at Gilmor Elementary reopened in October for an after-school program, but Jeannette Wilson, a mother of two, said it closed in February. She found a sign on the door with the news.
"'The center is closing until further notice,' and that's it," Wilson said. "We didn't know what happened."
City officials say they intend to reopen the Lillian Jones rec center in the coming months.
The transition has hit West Baltimore particularly hard. Four centers, Crispus Attucks, Central Rosemont, Hilton and Harlem Park, were closed permanently.
But Councilman William "Pete" Welch, who represents parts of the city's west side, said he is encouraged by talks that are under way to reopen the Central Rosemont and Hilton centers. The details for both are preliminary.
Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents Northwest Baltimore, said community activists came forward to serve children in his district. The Baltimore chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity reopened the Easterwood center, which had been closed for three years.
"Rec opportunities are critically important," said Mosby, an Omega Psi Phi brother who said he "grew up" in a Baltimore rec center.
The local fraternity chapter took over the center last June and opened an after-school program in November.
"We can all rant and rave about what's not being funded," said Zanes Cypress Jr., the chapter president. "That's why groups like ours have to step up. It takes volunteerism and some fundraising and a willingness to get your hands dirty."
Sabrina Weaver of Northeast Baltimore's Cedonia neighborhood said her son Tristen Kenan, 8, found a spot at the nearby Furley rec center, where the nonprofit Youth Sports Program now serves 150 children.
But Weaver wonders how many other kids will have no place to go this summer or in coming years.
"That's sad that private groups had to step up," Weaver said. "I want my son to be somebody. We need the city to help them with the beginning of their lives. We need these centers."
Shantel Thigpen, who started Youth Sports a decade ago with her husband, said she supports the mayor's plan, because it gives groups like hers the chance to provide new opportunities for children. Her nonprofit offers sports such as lacrosse and soccer, games, dance, and arts and crafts.
By partnering with private groups that allow the city to pump its limited resources into fewer centers, recreational opportunities are enhanced, Thigpen said.
"The change was good and I think the vision is great," she said. "We are a throwback to what recreation used to be in Baltimore."
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