Baltimore City

Rebuilding a community starts with school

Beyond the biotech high-rise, the townhouses and the condominiums sits what developers call the real centerpiece of the new East Baltimore Development Inc. - a school.

The East Baltimore Community School has been open for only half a school year, housed in an assembly of temporary buildings at Washington and Chase streets. But almost everyone involved in the sprawling $1.8 billion EBDI redevelopment project - which aims to rebuild the area north of Johns Hopkins Hospital - refers to the school when discussing the neighborhood's odds of success.

"The school is the anchor institution in the neighborhood. It's the one place where all the families have an interest," says Rob English, community organizer for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

"The community will be successful," says Chris Shea, chief executive officer of EBDI, "if five, seven, 10 years from now you were to go to the school, the public school, and you would find a wide diversity of people who are achieving really, really well academically."

When Shea speaks of diversity, he's talking about incomes.

"Because people with choices, the higher-income people who could send their kids to private school, they would say, 'Hey, I could send my kid to the neighborhood school.' "

Developers are hoping to attract lower- and middle-income families to the new houses and renovated blocks. A successful school would help anchor higher-income families in the area, Shea says.

That mix of people, urban planners say, would improve chances that residents will maintain their homes, patronize local businesses and keep the neighborhood safe.

Cathy Miles, principal of the East Baltimore Community School, knows she faces a challenge. "We are rebuilding a community starting with the school," she says.

Miles spent 16 years as the music teacher and later assistant head of the middle school at the Gilman School in Roland Park. Her selection process was unusual: EBDI, as well as the Baltimore school board, had a say in her hiring.

For the year before classes opened, Miles worked with an array of people interested in the school - including members of the school board, representatives of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, staff of EBDI, East Baltimore residents and parents.

The East Baltimore Community School opened in August 2009 with 138 pupils in kindergarten, first and fifth grades. The children arrive every day dressed in blue-and-yellow plaid uniforms - an outfit designated by parents.

The new school, technically a public "contract" school, can save 70 percent of its slots for pupils whose families lived within the EBDI borders - even those families who have decided not to move back.

"That includes families who were moved out, families that have moved back now, as well as students in the project area and the streets beyond that," Miles says.

The teachers, selected by Miles in consultation with EBDI and city schools, use a curriculum developed in discussion with parents and community members.

"Not only were our parents engaged, but they were so excited about the potential, the hope and the promise that was being kept," Miles said.

Andrea Evans, a kindergarten teacher who has a child at the school, describes the curriculum, an "expeditionary learning model," as a plan that emphasizes community service.

This fall, pupils explored "What Happens when Communities Change?" To find some answers, Miles says, teachers use East Baltimore as an extended classroom.

Children are studying the community's history and considering its future. This semester, fifth-grade pupils researched the environmental effects of razing dozens of city blocks - which EBDI has done as it clears land for renewal.

The class also walked the seven-acre site - now filled with boarded-up houses - where the East Baltimore Community School building is expected to open by 2013.

The school has launched a 100 Book Challenge literacy campaign.

The neighborhood's old school did not rank among the city's best. Education specialists say it will take perhaps a decade to see if the East Baltimore Community School will be different.

"They have the best minds on the available programs and they know what has worked in other places," said Susan Leviton, a member of the board of Advocates for Children and Youth. "I think there's a chance for that school."