One of Baltimore's underperforming neighborhood high schools may be turned into a citywide technology magnet, making it part of an ambitious plan to develop a "digital harbor" along the city's abandoned industrial waterfront.
City school officials have proposed that Southern High School become a technology academy with a rigorous curriculum that would put students on track for careers in the fast-growing technology industry.
"I think there's a lot of enthusiasm about really going to town with this," said C. William Struever, vice chairman of the city school board. "Certainly the business community is eager to get involved because they see the huge need in terms of training a qualified workforce."
With the strong backing of city schools Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo, the school system has asked the state for $500,000 for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, to open the technology academy by fall 2002.
Creating a technology-focused high school at Southern would complement the concept of a "digital harbor" being promoted by Struever and other area developers. Struever's company, Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse, is leading the effort to build office and apartment complexes around the Inner Harbor to attract high-technology companies -- and their workers -- to the city.
In addition to the American Can Company in Canton, Struever's developments include an office center known as Tide Point and an upscale townhouse community in Locust Point, both of which are in southern Baltimore.
Other "digital harbor" projects either under way or planned are Inner Harbor East, Honeywell, the Coca-Cola plant and the Power Plant Annex.
Struever said converting Southern to a technology academy would be in line with several of the school system's goals, including wiring classrooms, providing more opportunities for high-achieving students and reforming failing high schools.
"The goal is just to take this opportunity to begin thinking outside the box," he said. "Our zoned high schools have not been working well for anybody."
Struever sees no potential for conflict between his public and private roles.
"If there is something wrong with a business leader fighting for better schools and better education for the jobs of the future, then I'm guilty of conflict of interest," he said.
The Southern High proposal is part of an effort to reorganize the 182-school system. School officials are considering a set of recommendations, released this week, to close a dozen schools, consolidate others and change the missions of many middle and high schools.
Many specifics of the proposed Southern High conversion are unclear. Russo said she expects to establish a broad-based planning committee to discuss details over the next several months.
She also plans to visit a new technology high school in San Diego, High Tech High, next month.
But changes could come as soon as next fall, when the incoming freshman class might be diverted to other city high schools, including Southside Academy, Douglass, Walbrook, Lake Clifton-Eastern and Southwestern.
That could prompt complaints from parents such as Angela Ireland, who has a daughter in the 11th grade at Southern.
"I think that the kids need to go to their neighborhood schools," she said. "It's not fair to our kids that live here [to change it]. We live here in the neighborhood, and I wouldn't want my kids bused anywhere anyway."
Foreseeing such concerns, Russo said slots would be reserved at the new technology high school for some neighborhood students, who might be picked by lottery.
"We don't want to say to those students who live in the area of Southern High School, 'Oops, you can no longer go there,'" explained Patricia Morris Welch, a school board member and dean of the school of education at Morgan State University.
Southern is being recommended as the site for the technology magnet in large part for its location, but also because its enrollment is well below capacity, Russo said.
The school can accommodate more than 2,000 students, according to state statistics, but only an estimated 1,200 are enrolled.
"In my view it was a perfect match," Russo said.
To make sure there are enough students to feed into the program, the city has proposed creating at least three middle school technology academies. School officials have asked the state for $431,000 for computer labs, laptops and other equipment at one of those schools.
"We can't just open a digital harbor technology academy and expect all of a sudden we're going to have 500, 800 or however many students we're looking for," Struever said.
One of the schools could be a new building at the site of the old Lexington Terrace Elementary in West Baltimore, which was closed and demolished after a nearby housing project was torn down.
School officials say preparing its students to cross the "digital divide" is crucial, given that 30,000 new technology-related jobs could be created in the city over the next five years.
"This is certainly where the jobs will be," said Russo. "I mean, the jobs are there now, and it's going to continue to grow."