To rescue the neighborhood, start with the school.
The neighborhood: Murphy Homes, the West Baltimore housing project long beset by a seemingly endless cycle of drugs, violence, poverty and despair.
The school: George Street Elementary, or what used to be George Street Elementary, that is. Yesterday, it became the George Street Academy of Mathematics and Science.
It is not a little bit ironic -- and certainly no coincidence -- that the Baltimore school system chose one of the poorest schools in one of the poorest communities to become its only elementary school-level academy.
The school's estimated 400 students will get heavy doses of math, science and technology in classrooms full of computers, talking machines, educational games and all manner of modern-day gadgetry meant to hold the interest of fidgety children. The idea is to reach these children, to get them so excited about school that they can't wait to get there every morning.
Otherwise, in a few years, says Principal Barbara Hill, there's a good chance they'll end up toting guns and selling drugs on the streets that buzzed yesterday afternoon with the commerce of illicit capitalism and the admonitions of a preacher delivering his sermon through a portable amplifier.
"What we hope to teach them is that with all they face -- all the violence, the unemployment, the drugs -- we want them to make more of their lives," Mrs. Hill said.
"What we tell them is that if you want to break free of this, if you want better, there's only one way. And that's to get a good education."
All of the young students live in the Murphy Homes area, most of them in the project itself.
The academy grew out of a partnership that includes the city school system, the Apple and IBM computer firms, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Morgan State University, Coppin State College, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the Murphy Homes tenant council.
The computer companies provide training to students and teachers, using software that accompanies the school's 80 computers.
Coppin and Morgan train teachers in new ways to reach the children. BG&E; has provided materials and done renovations and repairs. The Housing Authority and the tenant council plan to work with the school to forge more community-school efforts, like the fledgling sewing business that residents operate from the school.
For a few dozen first-graders yesterday, education meant toying with a computer to bring giraffes and rabbits and orangutans and elephants to life on a screen.
The children listened to the creatures moving across the screen and read texts on their eating habits and the climates in which they thrive.
"I want to hear the elephant, I want to hear the elephant!" said 6-year-old Alicia Washington. She did.
"This'll help the neighborhood," she said, checking out the array of computers. "We'll get jobs now because a lot of jobs have computers, and if you don't know how to work a computer, you can't get one."
One day, after she's finished school, Alicia said, she'll move from this neighborhood. She hopes never to see the empty vials that once contained drugs or hear the nightly gunfire or see the crowds gathered on street corners. "It distracts me. It scares me," Alicia said, "because it may be some of my family that's getting shot down there."
Her uncle was shot to death; her grandfather was found dead in a bathtub of cold water. She's not sure about her father. She's never seen him. "I don't have a daddy," she said, "but I have Jesus."
It's a familiar story in this neighborhood where single-parent households are the norm and the jobless outnumber the employed.
Too many people expect more of the same from the next generation and the next, said Gareth Brown, a staff specialist with the school system's compensatory education program who helped lead the transformation of the George Street school.
"Others tend to discount the potential of children located in this neighborhood because of its proximity to the Murphy Homes," Mr. Brown said. "If we can offer an alternative to that lifestyle, if we can somehow reach them, raise their expectations, if you give them something in life to work for, hopefully they can bypass all that. We don't dwell on all the problems outside, but we know we have to work harder to save them in this neighborhood."
Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who visited the school yesterday, put it a little differently.
"We have to do everything we can to help these kids in this community," he said. "There are so many ways they have self-esteem chipped away that we have to try hard to balance the scales."