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Innovation Center arrives at Baltimore’s Green Street Academy

Larry Rivitz, right, co-founder and co-chair of charter school Green Street Academy, and the school's director of innovation, Harry Preston, are pictured at the school's new learning space, the Elijah E. Cummings Innovation Center.
Larry Rivitz, right, co-founder and co-chair of charter school Green Street Academy, and the school's director of innovation, Harry Preston, are pictured at the school's new learning space, the Elijah E. Cummings Innovation Center. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The normal noise associated with 875 middle and high school students was silent this year, but that didn’t mean there was nothing going on at the Green Street Academy on Hilton Street in West Baltimore.

A construction crew added a $2 million Innovation Center named for the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings in what was a cafeteria when the congressman, who died in 2019, likely had lunch as a student at what was then Gwynns Falls Junior High School.

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“The idea is to create 21st-century career opportunities for our students,” said Larry Rivitz, the school’s co-founder. “We are like a three-legged stool made of strong academics, career skills and an orientation to work.”

Funds for the Cummings Innovation Center were raised from private donors and charitable foundation gifts.

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Now a city charter school, the academy is filling out most of the space in what was a showpiece of 1925 school construction. When new, the school was Baltimore’s costliest educational endeavor.

The majestic building was declared surplus property by the city public schools system about 40 years ago. The Green Street Academy moved in nearly six years ago and gradually occupied the bulk of the cavernous building, initially renovated at a cost of $20 million. But there still was room to expand.

The academy literally grew into the old cafeteria space on the third floor. The school structure is so large that the academy cannot fill all the classrooms and ancillary spaces. There are still unrenovated classrooms with old slate blackboards and the remnants of home economics equipment.

The Green Street Academy stresses sustainability. Its lobby holds a koi pond, and its backyard has a 4,000-square-foot hydroponic vegetable-growing greenhouse, chicken coop and apple orchard.

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Vegetables grown at the GSA Farms will be sold. Students will act as sellers, accountants, marketers and distributors for this “from school to your table” operation. They hope to raise and sell 25,000 pounds of salad greens and herbs in a year.

Rivitz led a tour of the Cummings Innovation Lab before students begin to return to in-person classes next month.

“We appeal to those who like a small school environment,” he said. “As a high school, we are small in comparison to a regional high school. Our students get more time on an athletic team. They get more academic attention. They get more internships.”

The new center is one of the features that will help students get into the 300 paid summer internships offered by employers such as Stanley Black & Decker, Johns Hopkins Medicine and the University of Maryland CURE Program.

The West Baltimore Renaissance Foundation also supports the school’s initiatives.

Rivitz, who founded with school in 2010 with Baltimore investor David Warnock, describes the school as a “regionally neighborhood school with a 97% graduation rate.”

Admittance is by lottery, and many students come from the St. Joseph-Irvington, Allendale and Carroll South neighborhoods. About 60% walk to 125 N. Hilton St.

Heading the new center is Harry Preston, who carries the title director of innovation.

“I’ll be showing the students their opportunities here,” Preston said. “This building offers room to grow and expand. Here they will learn advanced and micro manufacturing, laser cutting, pre-engineering, pre-architecture and pre-apprenticeship.”

He also looked out of the school’s expansive windows over the rowhouse rooftops of Kossuth and Morley streets.

“It is definitely breathtaking in the spring,” Preston said.

The creation of the Cummings Innovation Center does not mean all the mission of the Green Street Academy is over. There are still those unrenovated classrooms in the complex.

“If we had a dream, it’s to create a pre-K-through-12 school,” Rivitz said. “We have the space for it. And you can always dream.”

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