Where he first saw a lot of work, he later saw an opportunity to tap a business and development community that has a desire to help the city, and the resources to do so.

More than $1 million was fronted by the developer, which turned the building over to the school. The school system has the option of buying it.

"I hope that people will look at the way this was done, and not superficially," Lazarus said. "People know that it was a public-private partnership, but this was much more than that. You really have to put a team together to do this work."

Lazarus said the school's unique mission of serving middle and high grades will make it a "laboratory to design curriculum that can be used around the country." The school was modeled after a Miami high school, but design curriculum is usually not taught in any significant way below the college level, he said.

"When we started, we had a lot to prove, and we still have a lot to prove to parents and kids," Lazarus said. "When people come through [MICA], they like to look at the nice rooms and the beautiful courtyards, but where they really want to hang out is where the work is going on. I think it's going to be true in this building as well."

The school's principal, Nathan Burns, said the variety of class choices for students drew him to the school last year. Burns, who is not an artist, took a class at MICA this past school year and had students critique his work.

"What I loved was while the school had a specific purpose, it could produce designers who want to make clothes or lawyers who want an art gallery," Burns said. "Design is a real life skill that you use every day."

The building, with its near floor-to-ceiling windows, pastel-colored tiled bathroom and state-of-the-art labs and equipment, is what Burns called an "artist's dream."

But more importantly, he said, students at the Design School will be well-positioned for the district's new curriculum, which has been aligned with the common core standards adopted by the state. Like design, the new standards require critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The Design School's curriculum includes core subjects, such as foreign language, and at least 90 minutes of art and design courses a day.

At the New York school, Pugh said, she met as many students who wanted to study other disciplines as those who wanted to design high fashions.

"When I talked about bringing this to Baltimore, really, I was talking about the energy," she said. "The space to create, and not being taught in a box. A place that allows you to design what you think should be a part of your future."