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New at 'North Avenue'

The Baltimore Sun

Fifty-eight middle and high school students on long-term suspension or expulsion are now attending classes inside the Baltimore school system headquarters, a building that over the years had come to symbolize bureaucratic inefficiencies.

Dozens of politicians, education officials and community leaders gathered yesterday in the parking lot of "North Avenue," as the mammoth structure is known, to mark this week's opening of the alternative school, Success Academy. Five boys who are enrolled there stood attentively through the official greetings and congratulations.

"We're glad that you're here," Deputy Mayor Salima S. Marriott told them. "Sometimes we fall down, but the goal is to get up and keep on going."

The school, which opened Monday and can enroll up to 100 students, serves practical and symbolic functions: City schools chief Andres Alonso cut 310 central office jobs this year, leaving extra space. He also wanted to breathe life back into the building by requiring administrators to interact with children. And he wanted to make a statement that the students, some of the city's most troubled, are welcome anywhere.

"It matters tremendously that there are kids in North Avenue," Alonso said yesterday.

Over the summer, contractors and employees in the system's facilities department completed $1.2 million worth of work in seven weeks to convert a wing of North Avenue into a gleaming new school with shiny floors, untarnished desks and lockers, and several flat-screen computers. City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke has told Alonso that all of Baltimore's schools should look that good. "Yes, ma'am, I agree," Alonso replied from the podium in the parking lot.

The group trooped in through the building's east side, where a red velvet ribbon draped across a glass door. Clarke led a countdown to the ribbon-cutting: "Five, four, three, two, one ... success!"

Inside are four classrooms, space used for offices and counseling, and a multipurpose room that functions as a cafeteria. Students begin the day with breakfast, and then those in high school board a bus to the Druid Hill YMCA for classes in such topics as leadership development, career preparation and health. In the afternoon, the high school students return to North Avenue, and the middle school students go to the YMCA.

In the multipurpose room yesterday, a teacher led 12 boys and one girl in a conversation about how to make money legally, without selling drugs. They talked about the potential income of cutting lawns in the suburbs.

The opening of Success Academy is part of a strategy by the Alonso administration to reach challenged students. The system has begun a campaign to bring back dropouts, and last week it secured commitments from 133 to continue their high school education.

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