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Long-promised community school comes to fruition

More than a decade before thousands rallied outside the State House in Annapolis for adequate school facilities for the city's children, several dozen residents met in a school lunchroom in Northeast Baltimore to lay the groundwork for building just one new school in their community.

The campaign for a new building in Waverly began in 2003 when the school board decided to expand the elementary school to serve middle school students as well. Eventually, city officials promised, those students would move into a new building to rival the high-performing Roland Park Middle, which they would have attended.

But a school system fiscal crisis, turnover of city school board members, and the passage of time worked against the new building.

Now Waverly Elementary/Middle stands as one of the first new schools to open in the city in recent decades — and the last until 2017, when dozens of new school buildings will be rebuilt and repaired under a $1 billion, 10-year facilities plan.

"It's really the miracle on 34th Street, because it's that important to this community," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who joined the Waverly fight on behalf of her district and as chair of the council's education committee.

She also called the school, which has opened and is planning a formal ceremony to celebrate, "the premiere act of the $1.1 billion plan."

In 2005, Clarke went to the district's headquarters to remind officials of the promise they'd made to the neighborhood, armed with a VCR tape of the school board meeting where they made it. Two years later, Clarke would welcome new schools CEO Andrés Alonso with a charge to make Waverly a priority, and he renewed the vow to the community.

Bob Heck, who has served on the school board since Alonso arrived in 2007, first became involved in the Waverly project as president of the PTA of Roland Park Elementary/Middle. He said the Waverly building represents more than a new facility.

"It represents a fulfillment of a promise for a brighter future for their children, and I'm glad the feet were held to the fire," Heck said. "With bureaucracy, things take time. But in this particular case, we righted a wrong."

The new $27 million, 133,000-square-foot building — paid for through state and city funding — culminates a long history of the Waverly community's agitating on behalf of its educational anchor.

As far back as the early 1900s, the neighborhood was fighting for adequate school facilities, complaining then about small classrooms and bad ventilation.

The new building will be the fourth the school has inhabited since 1911.

Merlyn Bell has taught at three of those buildings during her 40 years at Waverly. She could have retired 10 years ago, but decided that she couldn't start her next chapter until the school did.

"Last year, I made the declaration that I would retire the year they got a new building — whether I got to spend six months or six minutes in it," said Bell, who plans to retire in June. "I feel a sense of relief and fulfillment."

Bell began teaching at Waverly in the 1970s amid a concentrated effort to desegregate schools in the neighborhood. She remembers when the only technology in the classroom was a record player or overhead projector. She also saw the school outgrow old buildings, where students didn't have a cafeteria and ate lunches in classrooms.

"We made the best of what we had, but if we had a building like the one we have now, we would have been fantastic," she said.

When Bell looks around the new building, she sees an opportunity for the school to be a gathering place for the community. Years ago — before it ran out of space — the school frequently had programs, performances, and even hosted Thanksgiving dinner on tables lining the school's hallways.

"I just see so much potential in this building," Bell said. "Because it's not the walls that hold us together, it's the relationships."

In addition to technology, new learning spaces and a cafeteria that doubles as an auditorium, the school serves as a community resource with a food pantry, a youth center that provides day care for students, and a child care center that will be open throughout the summer. The school relies on a number of volunteers.

"We expect them to emerge as one of the premier K-8 schools in the district, because of all of those resources coming together. And that's what we're trying to replicate," said Tisha Edwards, interim CEO of the city school system.

Clarke and other community members say that Waverly still needs more support to be comparable to Roland Park's academic vigor.

But Waverly's teachers and principal say they're on their way to setting their own standard of success.

"It's wonderful to be a part of history as Baltimore City schools begins to build new schools for the students. All kids deserve a beautiful place to learn," said Amanda Rice, who took over as principal of the school this year.

"I want to bring my kids advanced academics, technology, the arts," Rice said. "We have the facility, and now there are few limitations."

Edwards, who took over for Alonso last year and will lead the district until Gregory Thornton arrives this summer, said the Waverly building is "the perfect way to kick off where we're trying to go as a district."

She said, however, that what's going on inside of the building is just as pertinent to its success.

"The building is one part of it, and is a necessary and important element, but a 21st-century building also needs a very progressive, very forward-thinking school leader and a robust community behind it," Edwards said. "And I think Waverly has that."

Community members say they never thought their fight for Waverly's new building would lay the groundwork for a citywide movement.

Last year, the General Assembly approved unprecedented legislation that enabled the school system to orchestrate a $1.1 billion facelift of its dilapidated infrastructure — the oldest in the state. Passage came after the school system and advocates detailed and highlighted a $2.4 billion need.

"When we started this, there was no general sense at the citywide level or the state level how bad facilities really were in Baltimore City," said Karen DeCamp, director of neighborhood programs at the nonprofit Greater Homewood Community Corp. "It really took some time and effort to create that urgency."

Greater Homewood spearheaded the charge for the new Waverly building, and DeCamp was responsible for mobilizing the community to engage in what she called a "sustained public outcry."

"We now know 10 years later that you can't fight this one school at a time," she said. "The building is incredibly beautiful, and I think it is, for us, going to be the shiny example of what you can accomplish when you organize people to work together."

At a tumultuous time when many parents are choosing to send their children to private schools, some residents say the Waverly accomplishment has restored faith in public schools.

"We have such a long history of a diverse, quality public education in this neighborhood, and so many of us got to enjoy that," said Joan Stanne, a 40-year resident of Ednor Gardens who has volunteered at the school for the past 13 years.

Stanne, who saved the coveted VCR tape that was used to confront board members, said she stayed involved at Waverly in hopes that parents would have the same experiences she did when her son attended.

"This area is special because of its diversity, and we need a school that fits with that — where everybody feels comfortable," she said. "Somewhere a little bit of that was lost. We have parents now who say, 'We're going to do this neighborhood public school thing' and that's really great to see."

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