Violetville school community celebrates new building

State and local leaders joined the community of Violetville Elementary/Middle School on Thursday to celebrate the opening of the school's brand-new building, which is the first new school facility to be constructed in Baltimore in more than a decade.

The $14 million building opened to students Monday, and officials including Gov. Martin O'Malley attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, where members of the community described how the original 81-year-old, deteriorating facility has long had a negative effect on students.

Eighth-grader Derrick Slowe told leaders that the old building "had its own personality," but the new building would provide a "better place for learning and new opportunities."

Regina Krainer, the mother of a Violetville eighth-grader, said the school's exterior now reflects the pride of the school and the community.

"People judged us by our cover; they had no idea what was on the inside," she said. "But if you look around the room at these children, there's a new pep in their step."

Violetville — a tight-knit pocket of Southwest Baltimore whose ties to the school span three and four generations — is known among state and local representatives for its relentless pursuit of a new building, lobbying everyone from the city's school board to federal representatives for years.

In the past decade, the school's conditions ranged from uncomfortable to unsafe, with trailers serving as classrooms, a lack of drinking water, yellowing windows, doorless bathroom stalls and no heat or air conditioning.

Parents and school leaders said that they did the best they could under the circumstances, but made sure that leaders heard about them along the way. "The Violetville community has stayed its course for 15 years to get to this point," said Principal Catherine Reinholdt, who has led the school for 11 years.

This year, a 61,240-square-foot building was constructed, which houses plenty of classroom space, a media center and computer labs, and is wired for technology. Drinking water is in full supply and the building is equipped with heat and air conditioning. The school also boasts a new outdoor amphitheater and a 6,000-square-foot "gymatorium" — a hybrid between a gym and an auditorium.

The state is funding more than $10 million of the Violetville project, which has another phase of construction due to be completed by spring of next year.

The next phase will include the demolition of the school's old building and the construction of another wing that will include the reuse of the school's historic brick. The new school also preserves some historic elements of the old building.

Education advocates, some of whom have been critical of the city's lack of renovated facilities for students, praised the new Violetville building Thursday.

"You can see the excitement and pride in the staff and students," said Bebe Verdery, education director for the ACLU of Maryland. "This is what Baltimore must embrace for all of its children and all of its schools."

In June, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report that called for state and city leaders to address a $2.8 billion need for renovations to Baltimore schools. Violetville, which is the first new school to be built in Baltimore since 1998, is one of three schools in the city considered by the ACLU to now be in "excellent" condition. The vast majority of the city's 198 schools are considered to be in "poor" condition, according to the ACLU.

The amount of money being spent on construction in the city is the most since the 1960s, said Keith Scroggins, who has served as chief operating officer of the school system for the past four years.

Since the summer of 2006, there have been at least $20 million in renovation projects underway every year, and this summer there was about $100 million in renovations taking place for about 37 projects around the district.

Most of the projects include updates to media and technology centers, and new computer labs.

Members of the Violetville community said that while the old building is no longer in use, what it stood for lives on.

"As we go forward in this wonderful new building, remember the halls are nice and the new rooms are terrific," said Leslie Steirer, who has taught math at the school for 15 years, sometimes in trailers, and was a student and parent of a student at the school. "But the heart of the school is what goes on inside the walls and classrooms."

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