An unlikely scene unfolds daily at City Neighbors High School in Baltimore: Students lounge in cheetah-print beanbag chairs reading books, stretch across stained-wood hutch-style desks as they work on assignments and wash dishes at a kitchen sink.
The public charter school, which opened this year with an inaugural ninth-grade class of 90 students, has created a "home away from home" as part of its innovative learning environment.
"The idea behind this is, 'How do we make it so that every kid who walks in those doors is known, loved and supported academically,' " said Bobbi Macdonald, the school's founder and self-described "relentless shopper" as she gave a tour of the building she feverishly decorated before doors opened to students this year. "And this is what we think it will take."
Nooks throughout the building boast overstuffed lounge chairs and sofas, soothing mint and warm latte walls, and Gothic-style chandeliers and light fixtures. The school's cafeteria is equipped with booths, photographs of students' families and studio lighting.
The new City Neighbors High School opened in September on the campus of the popular City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore. The high school has students representing 23 middle schools around the city, half of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches. It will eventually expand to 12th grade.
Danique Dolly, the school's principal, said the diversity of the school demands facilities that foster engagement.
"Especially in Baltimore City, it's important to create this particular environment, where students get to know each other and respect their differences," he said. "It's creating a culture. Imagine how that will translate after four years."
It's common to see students lounging on sofas in classrooms typing on MacBooks, or propped on a hallway bench strumming a guitar. Students engage in projects and conversation in spaces that rival any showroom in the highest-end home furnishing stores.
"I feel like I'm in college," said ninth-grader Ayanna Hill. "It felt weird at first, but it's like we have our own space and our own family. I can talk to people about life. I like coming to school now."
The trademark "home" space is found in six apartment-style "pods," each of which contains the personal touches of students and the staff member assigned to the room. Each student has a hutch-style desk to store school supplies rather than the usual drab metal lockers. The pod is also equipped with a living area and a kitchen area with a microwave and refrigerator. Tidying up and washing dishes are also part of students' responsibilities.
But Macdonald said it isn't the aesthetics that will foster the growth of the new high schoolers. It's about supporting and empowering students, and changing the traditional ideas of relationships that are formed in school. The pod, she said, is the breeding ground for those transformations.
"We're telling them that we believe in their capacity to handle their independence," Macdonald said. "And we can respond to them in a different way than if they were just in any classroom."
The mission of City Neighbors will outshine any of its interior design, Macdonald said, as it looks to strengthen the idea of fostering individuality through project-based learning.
For example, the most prominently featured artwork on the school's walls showcases the process students went through to produce the creations, a touch that Macdonald said is at the core of the school's academic life.
"It's not about getting to the finish line," she said. "It's about a process that's deeply enlivened."
City Neighbors also captured the attention of city schools CEO Andrés Alonso, who said that as soon as he saw it, he "wanted to move in."
But Alonso said that the school's space, while beautiful, exemplifies that "learning needs to be engaging and challenging without intimidating or boring kids — because kids learn in complex ways, not through rote."