After years of shuttering schools amid declining enrollment and budget constraints, the Archdiocese of Baltimore is planning to build its first new Catholic school in the city in more than 50 years.
So far, the archdiocese has raised about $13 million of its roughly $18.5 million goal for the creation of the co-ed school, which will serve students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The school will be built on the site of the former public Lexington Terrace Elementary School, which was torn down in 1997 as part of a broader neighborhood redevelopment project.
Sean Caine, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said it hopes to open the school by the fall of 2020 and eventually enroll 500 students there.
"We've shrunk our educational footprint in the city; however, we recognize that there is a lack of presence of Catholic education in some areas," Caine said. "We've heard people articulate a need for it and say there's a pressing need for the stabilizing presence of a Catholic school in West Baltimore."
Archbishop William E. Lori first publicly discussed the plans last week during a meeting with some of the city's business leaders at the Center Club.
"It was a way to transition from a quiet phase of the fundraising to a more public one," Caine said.
In recent years, shrinking enrollment and costly infrastructure upgrades forced the archdiocese to dramatically scale back its portfolio of schools in the city. In 2016, it announced it would close three schools and merge two others. Six years earlier, the archdiocese closed 13 schools, including the beloved Cardinal Gibbons High School in the Morrell Park neighborhood.
But the decision to close schools, officials say, left a void in an area that's been plagued by high crime and poverty. Those issues were put into stark relief after the 2015 riots following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody.
The choice to open a new school near a part of the city that witnessed the brunt of the unrest "certainly is symbolic of the church's renewed commitment to the city and an area of our city that needs investment," Caine said.
"If there is a way out of poverty and hopelessness and joblessness, education has to be a major part of that conversation," he said. "And the church wants to be all in when it comes to helping transform lives and communities in West Baltimore."
Michael Seipp, executive director of the Southwest Partnership, said he welcomes any effort to bring better educational opportunities to his surrounding neighborhoods.
"It's been a long time since we've had a Catholic school open in this area," he said. "It's an important step for the archdiocese to bring alternative educational opportunities to neighborhoods, and as someone raised Roman Catholic, I think this is a wonderful thing."
Still, Seipp said, he's sure many people who live in the neighborhood will have questions for the archdiocese in the coming months: Where will students be recruited from? Will there be scholarships? What will the effect on traffic be?
In recent years, Caine said, enrollment in the system has stabilized. Part of that can be attributed to a voucher program Gov. Larry Hogan launched in 2016, called Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today.
Known as BOOST, it was designed to provide thousands of Maryland students from poor families with taxpayer-funded vouchers they can use to attend private or religious schools. According to Oct. 30 state data, more than 900 Baltimore students — more than in any other county — were awarded one of these vouchers this school year.
"Without a doubt, it has put Catholic education on the map again in Baltimore City," Caine said of the BOOST program. "It has breathed new life into Catholic schools."
About 17,000 students are enrolled in the Archdiocese of Baltimore's 45 schools, 10 of which are located in the city.
City Councilman John T. Bullock, a lifelong Catholic whose district covers West and Southwest Baltimore, said he's glad to see the empty lot — at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Lexington Street — put to good use.
"There's been a lot of consternation around the closing of schools," he said. "To have this kind of investment will be a great shot in the arm for the neighborhood."
The archdiocese plans to name the school after the late Cardinal William H. Keeler. In January, a state board approved a motion to transfer the roughly 1.5 acre Lexington Terrace Elementary School property to the city, and then to the archdiocese "for the construction of a new private school."
The location is also close to the University of Maryland BioPark, highlighting the school's planned emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Caine said the archdiocese has submitted an application for a contract to purchase the property and is regularly meeting with the city to finalize details for the sale.
For now, it is focused on fundraising.
"Once the money is in hand," Caine said, "we will set a date for a groundbreaking."