Baltimore unveils first new school rebuilt under the 21st Century schools program

The first building rebuilt under a $1 billion initiative to replace Baltimore’s aging schools was unveiled Wednesday by local and state officials eager to tout their delivery on promises to modernize the city’s education infrastructure.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony at the newly constructed Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School in East Baltimore’s Berea neighborhood was attended by city schools CEO Sonja Santelises, Mayor Catherine Pugh, Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford and dozens of other community members and leaders.

From a dais on the gleaming floor of the school’s new gym, Santelises commented on how the new facilities would be seen by students.

“What this gym says is that your physical well-being, your play, matters to us. What the classrooms with amazing flexible spacing say is your ability to collaborate, your ability to create and innovate, matters to us,” she said. “What the amazing technology in this building says is that we are not educating you for a past. We’re educating you for a future many of us adults will never see.”

Fort Worthington, along with the newly renovated Frederick Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore’s Mill Hill, will open their doors to students on Sept. 5, the first day of the new school year. Seven other school buildings — including two scheduled for midyear openings — are under construction and several others are in the planning stages.

The building initiative, known as the 21st Century School Construction and Revitalization Program, is a partnership established by the General Assembly in 2013 between the city, the Maryland Stadium Authority, Baltimore City Public Schools and the Interagency Committee on Public School Construction. It came about after years of community advocacy and is expected to be completed in 2021.

The $37 million Fort Worthington building has a media studio, technology lab, efficient lighting and many other state-of-art amenities.

Briyanna Jeffries, who went to Fort Worthington and attended the event with many other city residents, was so impressed with what she saw that she decided to give her friends on Facebook a live-streamed look while she walked the spacious, brightly lit halls.

Comments flooded her video post. Some asked: What school is that?

“My friends didn’t even recognize it,” said Jeffries, 18, who last went there in 2009. “It didn’t look anything like this before — this is so much better.”

Both Fort Worthington and Frederick were completed on schedule and under their combined $67 million budget, said Eric Johnson, schools project executive for the stadium authority, which is overseeing the construction.

Frank Patinella, a senior education advocate with the ACLU of Maryland, beamed as he watched families walk into the new school for the first time. His organization was a major driver behind getting the legislation establishing the partnership passed.

“I’m really trying to take a moment to celebrate this victory,” said Patinella, adding that he remains worried about the dozens of other city schools still in poor condition.

Between 23 and 28 schools are in line for renovations under the initiative.

Mignon Anthony, executive director of the district’s 21st Century program, said she’ll get a better idea of the final tally when the MSA prepares its next annual report.

A major component of the 21st Century plan involved closing underused schools and boosting the use of those that remained open. Students from what used to be Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary/Middle nearby will move into Fort Worthington.

Students from Samuel F. B. Morse, which also closed, are joining those at nearby Frederick, which is a newly converted neighborhood charter school operated by the Baltimore Curriculum Project.

“In my mind, we’re one now,” said Frederick Principal Harold Henry Jr. “I’m trying to get everyone out of talking about Morse families and Frederick families — we’re all Frederick families now.”

Anthony said her office has been working to bring communities together — through events such as barbecues and neighborhood forums — after many families whose children attended schools slated for closure spoke out against the plans. Some parents said switching buildings could disrupt their children’s education, and others voiced concerns over rivalries between newly merged student bodies.

After plans for Fort Worthington were announced, members of the Berea Eastside Neighborhood Association protested outside of the district’s headquarters. The neighborhood’s recreation center was torn down to make room for the new school, which residents said would deprive them of a much-needed hub for community events.

Anthony said the initiative worked with the parks and recreation department to ensure that the center’s activities could still operate in the school building. For example, officials built the gym floor with a material that could support the former community center’s roller-staking program.

Odania Spriggs attended Fort Worthington about 20 years ago and said and it seemed old even then. When her 12-year-old daughter Rashawn enrolled, Spriggs said she was disappointed with the dilapidated facilities.

“To see them tear it down and build it back up is just amazing,” Spriggs said. “It makes me want to go back to school.”

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