The residents and redevelopers of East Baltimore agree that the $42 million school taking shape on 7 acres along Ashland Avenue symbolizes hope for the community.
But they disagree about which children should be able to attend the much-heralded new school.
The long-planned Elmer A. Henderson School, to be operated by Johns Hopkins and Morgan State universities, was designed to be a neighborhood anchor and a magnet for new residents.
Known as Henderson-Hopkins, the campus is part of the East Baltimore Development Inc. plan that also calls for more than 1,500 homes and 1.7 million square feet of laboratory, office and retail space next to the Hopkins hospital complex.
Many neighborhood residents thought they would have a chance to send their children to the school, which Hopkins officials vowed would be the best in Baltimore and developers called a "core, bedrock opportunity" of the revitalization project.
But some residents say their children have been shut out from coveted slots in the high-profile public school that the operators had called a "community school." School officials vehemently deny that students were intentionally kept out of the new school.
When it opens next school year, it will be attended primarily by students from outside East Baltimore, including children of Hopkins employees who were given priority enrollment over those who live in the neighborhood.
Sharon Williams struggled to explain to her daughter Faith why she could not attend a school so close to their North Chester Street home.
"I just told her that Johns Hopkins had certain people they wanted to come to the school," Williams said. "It makes me feel like I'm not worthy, but I don't want her to feel less than a person because of this. But it's hard when you live a block away."
Some residents say the operators should have done more to recruit children who live close to the school. Hopkins officials said they would learn from the process and do better next year.
Some parents said they learned at the last minute that families had to go through an extensive application and lottery process to secure a spot in the new school.
Others complain about the way the school's admission priorities were adjusted. For some neighborhood children, a distance of one to two blocks meant being on a waiting list instead of on attendance rolls.
"The notion that there was an effort to go around the community is offensive," said David Andrews, dean of Hopkins' School of Education, the primary operator of the school. "Wherever you live, you should feel you have the opportunity for your kids to get a good education. And when you don't, it's devastating."
Henderson-Hopkins operates much like a charter school, with enrollment based on a lottery process. But it is considered a "contract school," meaning it can limit enrollment by geography.
This year, the school received 332 applications for 120 open spots.
"We did this in the most fair way possible," Andrews said. "And if you didn't get in, it's because we had more applications than spots. There's no other way it could have happened."
Andrews said that Hopkins thought its outreach efforts were successful because of the number of applications it received, but vowed to do better next year.
EBDI officials maintained that they only had an obligation to reach out to families displaced by redevelopment and have met that obligation. Eleven students from families displaced by EBDI applied to the school and all were accepted.
The parents' criticism also highlights the disparity and despair that can arise in a school system that strives for choice and opportunity.
Officials from EBDI and Hopkins said the new school cannot be a panacea for troubles at the city's public neighborhood schools.
"It is unfortunate that someone who lives on the other side of the boundary looking in can't take advantage of this," said Chris Shea, CEO of EBDI.
"What's more unfortunate is that that family doesn't have a quality educational opportunity in their neighborhood. The fact that Baltimore City schools and the city government failed that family is not something I can respond to."
Changing priority levels
This spring, a group of neighborhood leaders hand-delivered hundreds of applications and papered the neighborhood with fluorescent pink fliers in the week leading to the application deadline, informing families who might have otherwise missed the chance to participate in the school's lottery.
Many parents had believed that because they live so close to the school, that their children did not have to apply and would automatically be able to attend. Now, they believe that the school was never intended for their children.
During a recent neighborhood canvass to follow up with families whose applications were returned to the school, most answered the door armed with wait-list letters — and disappointment.
Kiera Kearney, who lives on Madison Street, said she is praying her son Shedric Barnes gets into the school because "Hopkins is going to have a little college campus over there."
The 90,000-square-foot facility will be unlike any other kindergarten-through-eighth grade institution in the city, Hopkins officials say, with the best technology and aesthetics. Classes, where a world-class curriculum aimed at individualized learning will be taught, will be capped at 20 students and deliver a holistic, comprehensive learning experience.
The school, originally planned to open in September, will open in January 2014 because of construction delays, officials said. The 368 students who are enrolled in the school will attend classes in a modular structure and then transfer to the new building.
Shedric, one of 97 children vying for 48 spots in the kindergarten class, was wait-listed after participating in the lottery.
"I thought he was in there, for real, because the school is right there," Kearney said, waving in the direction of the school, which is closer to her house than her son's current school. "We need a protest or something. How [do] you have a raffle for kids to get into a school that's up the street?"
Stephanie Ruffner, whose North Chester Street home is a block from the new school but was in the next-to-last priority level, was among several parents who took Hopkins' and EBDI's characterization of a "neighborhood school" literally.
She believed incorrectly that she could simply register her students in June.
Now she's preparing to make life changes so that her kids, who have been wait-listed, can get in.
"I want to know if I get a job in housekeeping at Hopkins, if then my kids can go there," she added. "I would do that. Because they deserve better than they're getting."
The students' chances came down to a map hand-drawn by a committee of Hopkins and EBDI representatives and a contract that has grown to include five priority enrollment categories, up from two.
Originally, the school planned to give "families living in or relocated from the EBDI redevelopment area" first priority and then open it to families citywide, according to the school's original contract.
In July 2011, the city school board approved the Hopkins-Morgan partnership, in which Morgan, which specializes in science, technology, engineering and math curricula, would bring its manpower and knowledge about educating children from urban communities to the school.
At the same time, the board also agreed to the operators' request to add more priority levels for admission, believing that it would ease overcrowding at other schools.
The students who currently attend the East Baltimore Community School and are from all over the city have first priority, along with the families who were displaced and those from a number of blocks called the "catchment area" that includes the EBDI redevelopment zone and blocks surrounding Hopkins institutions.
The East Baltimore Community School, which opened in 2009 in a trailer while the Henderson-Hopkins school is being built, was intended to serve children in the neighborhood. However, it was under-enrolled and opened its doors to students from across Baltimore.
Hopkins believed that students who had attended East Baltimore Community should be given the opportunity to attend the new school.
According to enrollment data provided by Hopkins in April, 65 of the 69 applications that were submitted in the first priority level were accepted.
Siblings of students who attend the school have second priority, a benefit a handful of charter schools extend to students. Nineteen of the 27 applications received in that category were accepted.
Children of people who work within the catchment area, which includes Johns Hopkins hospital and university and EBDI, are in the next priority level; 29 of the 65 applicants were accepted.
According to a memo from the school's operators, children of those who work within the "EBDI footprint" will make up 20 percent of the school's population.
The next set of spots was set aside for families whose children attend five neighborhood schools, like Ruffner's and Williams' children. Five of the 51 applications from those families were accepted.
Any remaining seats were to be open to students from across the city. None of the 120 applicants in that category was accepted this year because the school was full.
'We'll learn from it'
In addition to drawing boundary lines, an ad-hoc committee of Hopkins and EBDI representatives set the priority levels, according to Andy Frank, special adviser on economic development to Hopkins President Ronald Daniels.
Frank, who was part of that committee, said the school expanded the priority levels, in large part, to include more students from neighborhood schools, though very few ended up getting in.
Frank also said that it's not unprecedented for a charter school to give some priority to employees who work in the area. He cited Midtown Academy, which has an enrollment preference for those working in the neighborhood, including universities.
"The fact of the matter is we're the only one who gives a preference to people who can see the school from their house," Frank said. "With that said, this was the first year, it was a complicated process, we'll learn from it, and next year we'll do better."
Andrews agreed with parents that the process was grueling. He recalled that after the lottery, a second-grader who didn't get chosen approached him and said, "I guess I have to go back to my bad school now."
"It's painful," he said. "But when you build a good school, you're going to have these problems."
Moreover, Andrews said Henderson-Hopkins is carrying out the mission to reflect a diverse, mixed-income neighborhood that the EBDI project was designed to create.
"We're unapologetically committing to that presence," he said. "So if we populate this school with all middle- and upper-class students who are children of employees from Hopkins, we will have completely failed."
Priority levels for new school
The following are the priority levels for the new Henderson-Hopkins School, scheduled to open in East Baltimore in January:
Priority 1: Students who currently attend the East Baltimore Community School (and are from all over the city), families who were displaced by EDBI and families from a group of blocks called the "catchment area" that includes the EBDI redevelopment area and blocks surrounding Hopkins' institutions. The catchment area was determined by an ad-hoc committee of Hopkins and EBDI representatives.
Priority 2: Siblings of students who attend the East Baltimore Community School.
Priority 3: Children of people who work within the catchment area, which includes Hopkins' hospital and university and EBDI.
Priority 4: Families whose children attend five neighborhood schools.
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Priority 5: Students from across the city.