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Park Heights resident working to transform former school into library

George Mitchell, who leads the Langston Hughes Community Action Association, gives a tour of the old Langston Hughes Elementary building, which is set to become a community resource and library. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

In an empty classroom at the former Langston Hughes Elementary School building in Park Heights, George Mitchell tapped a globe sitting on a desk.

"We want the kids to understand where they are," he said Wednesday. "Not only where they are, but where they want to go."

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Since the school's closure in 2015 following the city school board's decision to shut down schools with low enrollment, Mitchell, 62, has been an advocate for turning the vacant building into a resource for children in the community, where he has lived since he was a child.

After years of brainstorming and discussing his vision with elected officials, Mitchell received the keys to the building from the the city's Department of Real Estate early last month. The arrangement is considered temporary for now, until a lease can be finalized.

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Na'Thaia Huntley wanted nothing more than a job after graduating from Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in 2014, but, with no experience, her options were

Since then, he and a group of volunteers have been working to transform the building into the Langston Hughes Community, Business and Resource Center, with space for a library, classrooms, after-school activities and meeting rooms for neighborhood residents.

The center started operating about three weeks ago and offers art and Zumba classes. The library is scheduled for a soft opening Aug. 24.

Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, who represents the area, supports the grass-roots effort to turn the building into a community resource. She said the school's closure meant the loss of a "haven" in a community hampered by economic and social distress, she said.

"I was just very disappointed when that school closed, it should have never happened," Middleton said. "The building has been sitting there, it's been a void in that little section."

Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises is prepared to lay off more than 1,000 employees, from classroom teachers to custodians, in order to close a $130 million gap.

Mitchell worked with Middleton and Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, as well as local state delegates, to gain use of the building while a formal lease is in the works.

Young said he'll continue to work with Mitchell and city officials to get a lease secured. He said he's confident an arrangement can be made.

Mitchell said that when he arrived in the building in early July, there was no air conditioning, the ceiling was leaking and trash bags were piled in a back room.

The city fixed the air conditioning and repaired water damage. Meanwhile, he worked with a group of about 30 volunteers and 40 employees from the city-sponsored YouthWorks program over several weeks to clean, replace ceiling tiles, paint walls and set up supplies.

Funding and supplies have so far come primarily from donations, Mitchell said. The nonprofit Youth Educational Services Inc., which Mitchell leads, started a GoFundMe page that has raised almost $600. Community members, friends and elected officials have donated hundreds of books, five computers, athletic equipment, furniture and rugs.

The Baltimore school board voted Tuesday night to close four schools with declining enrollment.

The 43,000-square-foot, two-story building used to house almost 200 students from preschool to the fifth grade.

Right now the rooms are empty save a few tables, rugs and bookshelves, but Mitchell envisions turning them into space for computer use, reading and potential job training sessions. He also would like to see a culinary training program — with a rooftop garden where people can grow fresh produce.

According to Del. Bilal Ali, the District 41 delegation to Annapolis has agreed to sponsor a bond bill during the next legislative session that, if approved, could help support the center. Matching funds from other sources would likely be required.

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Mitchell also hopes to pique the interest of local businesses — as potential funding sources and to evaluate progress and offer suggestions.

"Our kids are smart, man. Really smart," Mitchell said. "We just need to have a chance to get these kids in a safe environment where they can learn."

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