When Baltimore school officials lobbied state lawmakers to fund an ambitious $1 billion, 10-year plan this year to modernize facilities, no one understood having a decade-long vision more than Sen. Catherine Pugh.

It was about 10 years ago that Pugh felt a spark on a New York City street corner as she watched the hustle and bustle of students heading into the High School of Fashion Industries. But when she spoke of replicating such a school in Baltimore, her idea was met with veiled skepticism.

"No one thought I was crazy; they just sort of looked at me and said, 'OK,'" she said with a chuckle, mimicking a stoic smile and patronizing nod. "So I took those OKs and ran with them."

As the school year starts in the city and other school systems around the area, city and state officials will celebrate on Monday the opening of the new Baltimore Design School. The $26.85 million transformation of a vacant, century-old building into a modern-chic school is emblematic of what the district hopes to accomplish with the $1 billion — building schools that support a 21st-century education.

Interim CEO Tisha Edwards said the school's building and instructional program, which focuses on architecture, fashion and graphic design, "represent the innovative spirit of city schools" that she is encouraging in the new school year. "The Baltimore Design School is affirmative evidence of what's possible for our children and our communities," Edwards said.

Beaming at the former Lebow Bros. clothing plant on Oliver Street — where antiquated sewing machines and irons line the top of library shelves, and an old freight elevator serves as the backdrop for student work displays — Pugh recalled how she tapped her fight, faith and friends with resources to design her dream into reality.

The long-vacant, 110,000-square-foot building in the heart of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, where men's suits were once produced for high-end retailers, will house the first design school in the country to serve middle and high school students. The building had been vacant since 1985.

Ninth-grader Ariel Chamblis, who wants to be a fashion designer because she "doesn't like walking around looking like everybody else," said she looks forward to attending school in a building that doesn't look like any other school in the city.

The ninth-grader said that drawing, originally an outlet for her anger, led to a dream of being a fashion designer. She thought the first time she'd be able to explore her talent would be attending design school after high school in someplace like California.

"I imagined going to art school in the city, but I didn't think it would happen," she said. "It's different than regular school. You can be yourself. If you want to be a unicorn, you can be a unicorn and no one makes fun of you."

The school, co-founded by Pugh and Maryland Institute College of Art President Fred Lazarus, was a source of inspiration for former CEO Andres Alonso's push to overhaul the city's dilapidated school infrastructure by pursuing creative financing.

The rehabilitation of the Lebow building was funded through a combination of public funding, tax credits and private bonds.

"What this says to me is if you really believe in something, and you keep fighting and surround yourself with the right people, anything can happen," said Pugh, a Democrat who represents District 40, where the Design School is located. "I really believe that in doing this, we laid the groundwork for the money that's coming to the city."

Using the Design School as an example, Alonso persuaded a hesitant city school board to conduct a $1.4 million study of the district's school buildings in 2011, in hopes of securing public and private funding to help the system overhaul the oldest school infrastructure in the state.

The study, which found about $2.4 billion in need, served as the blueprint for the district's "21st Century Buildings for Our Kids" master plan that will kick into high gear this school year.

The city's plan, which garnered national attention and an unprecedented financial commitment from the Maryland General Assembly this past spring, will raise $1 billion and guide the closure of 26 buildings and the renovation or rebuilding of 136 others by 2023.

At least one suburban district, Baltimore County, has followed the city's lead in crafting a long-term plan to update its facilities. The county school system, which has the second-oldest school infrastructure in the state, entered into a $500,000 contract this year to take an inventory of its facilities needs.

Pugh said she doesn't think she could have created the Design School if it weren't for Alonso, who upon hearing her idea said in his terse, trademark style: "Just do it."

The Design School was approved in January 2010 to operate as a program serving middle and high school grades. Since 2011, it has operated out of the former Winston Middle School building. This year, 350 students in grades six to nine will attend the school, which will expand to grade 12 by 2016.

Lazarus, who will retire from MICA this year and will serve on the Design School's board of directors, recalled how he turned Pugh down at least three times before deciding to partner with her on the school.

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."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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