Liberty Elementary School closed out the year with high praise from high places, as White House officials lauded the school's technology in its classroom and commitment in its community as a model for the nation.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith visited the school Monday, where students showcased projects they created using Adobe Voice software and gave officials tours of the school down hallways lined with "Instagrams" of prominent figures from the American Revolution.
The visits kicked off the weeklong "National Week of Making," which celebrates science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula.
At Liberty Elementary — where every student will have their own iPad next year — teachers told officials how they've watched even students who struggle to read books thrive when they have a tablet in their hands. They said they're on the same wavelength as their classmates, as they enter a world of learning that is boundless.
"It's in that passion of discovery that these kids will invent the future of our nation," Smith said of the activity she saw taking place at Liberty.
Educators and advocates also told officials about the Northwest Baltimore school's journey to become a community.
The school's principal and community activists joined forces to save the neighborhood's recreation center, on the chopping block in the mayor's budget in 2012, which reopened as the Liberty Rec and Tech Center in 2013.
The school and community associations now run the center, and Liberty isn't only a place where students excel academically, but where families can access programs like Zumba and GED classes and benefit from 16,000 pounds of food from its food pantry in exchange for four hours of community service.
Inspired by the school's mission inside and outside the classroom, Smith called Liberty's school community one of the most extraordinary that she's seen.
"This is the best of American innovation," Smith said. "This is the best of an American learning community, where everybody's all in."
Duncan, who said that his office would tap the school's principal, Joe Manko, as an adviser, called Liberty an example of a holistic approach to educating children.
"You can be as high-tech as you want, [but] if your kids are hungry, it's a little bit hard to concentrate in class," Duncan said.
Duncan, who visited Frederick Douglass High School in the weeks after the post-Freddie Gray unrest, said he was excited to be back in Baltimore and at a school that is helping students process what is going on around them.
At Liberty, Duncan asked teachers how students coped with the rioting and praised teachers who allowed students to talk, draw and write about it.
He said he made a visit to Ferguson, Mo., after similar events there and found students were prohibited from talking about the unrest.
The education secretary also addressed the recent crime in the city, saying he believes that the riots only showed the surface-level issues that have been festering in the city for decades.
He said while his office would continue to help support more summer jobs and summer programs in the city, he believed that long-term solutions like jobs would bring hope.
"Education is the only way we're going to solve these challenges," Duncan said.