The newly renovated Renaissance Academy includes pictures and quotations from African-American writers -- including Baltimore natives like essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The newly renovated Renaissance Academy includes pictures and quotations from African-American writers -- including Baltimore natives like essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Lisa Snowden-McCray/Baltimore Sun)

When you walk into the door of Renaissance Academy and climb the three flights of stairs that take you into the space the school occupies, you are confronted with a series of affirmations, inscribed in block lettering on the walls.

"The Renaissance Academy High School vision is to ensure that all students will graduate from this high school prepared for success at a four-year college or university," one reads.

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The affirmations turn into quotes once you're inside the hallways of the school, located in the troubled Druid Heights-Upton neighborhood. They are above lockers and inside a large common area where Baltimore dignitaries, Ravens officials, students, school leaders and others gathered Monday to celebrate $1.5 million in renovations. The Baltimore Ravens funded the effort, which included an updated science and arts room, and even laundry facilities.

There are quotes and pictures of black literary luminaries like Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, but also of young, black writers who are working now— essayists Ta-Nehisi Coates and D. Watkins, poet Kondwani Fidel, and journalist Erica Green, formerly of this newspaper, now a writer for New York Times.

"Before, it was like kind of, it wasn't sad or anything, but it wasn't as inspirational as it is now," says Jazmine Hull, a brown-skinned senior with smiling eyes.

"Some students [would] even say 'I feel like I'm in a prison,' when they come here, but now it's like, 'oh my goodness look at the new building, this looks so nice!' I love it. I love how we have quotes and we have pictures of black history. It's just amazing to me."

The young people at Renaissance have not had an easy go of it. Teachers and students at the school saw three students die violently in recent years, including a 17-year-old who was stabbed in a classroom. When Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises recommended last fall that the school be closed, students and parents lobbied hard to keep the doors open.

These mostly black students are also part of a generation that is witnessing a battle over civil rights arguably unlike anything that's been seen in this country for several decades. They saw the city react by way of uprising when Freddie Gray died in police custody a few years back. They've seen other black people killed by police, too, many times live and in color thanks to social media. And this was all before Donald Trump won the presidency by giving speeches that blasted black communities as miserable and crime-ridden. They are reminded at almost every turn that black lives don't actually matter.

That's why the quotes and affirmations do, and why Mayor Catherine Pugh's decision to take down this city's Confederate monuments was so important. The monuments, erected decades after the Civil War was fought celebrated people who saw blacks as less than human. The statues were a way to remind black people that they were never really at home, never really free. They were put there to remind anyone who saw them that black people needed to stay in their places. Some could argue that they're just statues, but they make up the background of this and other cities. They loom large.

The legacy of the racism that helped those statues be erected and celebrated is why many black students all over the city suffer still. It's why they live in communities torn apart by crime, why they can't drink the water in many homes and schools, and why students and parents have to fight for things people in wealthier districts take for granted.

How young people see themselves matters. And while Baltimore has a long way to go to remedy these inequalities, to stamp out this racist thinking, students, parents, and community partners at Renaissance are doing their part to heal and create an environment where students can grow. The affirmations, the quotes, and the pictures give the kids real-life examples of successes, via real people they can reach out and touch.

Back at the Monday celebration, 18-year-old Uthman Al-Ahmary helped show off some physical improvements and talk about some of the programs that Renaissance has put in place to help kids do their best — things like a food pantry, on-site therapists, and even toiletries like deodorant and sanitary products. Mr. Ahmary graduated from Renaissance Academy last year, but he says he still visits the school once a week.

He shows curious reporters around, pointing out the brighter lighting and gleaming new paint job.

"I love this school," he says, remembering how he and other students advocated to politicians to keep it open. "I can't properly articulate the emotions it makes me feel just to walk in here and see how it looks now."

The renovations won't solve everything, but they do send the students a message: their lives do matter.

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