Officials have big ideas for school

Atlanta facility model for complex to offer computers, day care

July 21, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

When the new brick townhouses began rising around a boarded-up, falling-down school building, Baltimore officials began to ask, "What will we do with that ugly school?"

Several months later, school officials are exploring the idea of building a fancy new math and science school on Martin Luther King Boulevard in West Baltimore.

The dream is this: a $20 million complex with a technology-rich school for kindergartners through eighth-graders -- with computers and science laboratories -- and a community center that would offer day care and after-school care to neighborhood families. The school would have high academic standards and a governing board with members from the University of Maryland, Baltimore and local businesses.

That is the dream that city housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III says he has for a school modeled after one built in a low-income area of Atlanta. Henson said he arranged a tour in Atlanta for several Baltimore school officials, including two school board members, and says he is ready to dedicate his time to raising money for the school from public and private sources.

School board member Colene Y. Daniel shares the dream. "I think if the community could see what a really good school looks like, then I think we would get a lot more buy-in for building new schools," she said.

But Daniel is somewhat more skeptical that it can work. First, school officials will have to justify the need for a new school. Two elementary schools -- Franklin Square and James McHenry -- are five or six blocks away in either direction.

While school officials seem confident of the need for a new school once families move in to the new housing complex, they are completing a study of enrollment in other schools in the area to help persuade state education officials to pay for a new school.

Wilber Giles, managing director of operations, declined to give an estimate of the enrollment. He said the old school, Lexington Terrace Elementary-Middle School, had been built to hold 500 to 700 pupils.

Daniel also has doubts about whether enough land is available at the site for a middle and elementary school, particularly if school officials hope to accommodate children from out of the neighborhood who want to attend a science and math school. The only alternative would be to have housing officials consider redesigning the housing complex.

Henson said he believes space would be available if the school is built higher, to four or five stories.

"I want to make sure that we have an architecturally significant building on Martin Luther King Boulevard," Henson said.

The third issue is money. Though Henson has said the housing commission will contribute $4 million, state and local capital funds are not expected to be enough to pay for the school. If enough money is found, design for the new school could begin at the end of the year. It is not known when construction would be completed.

The old school was torn down because it seemed a waste of money to renovate it, said Daniel, who toured the building more than a year ago as the system was surveying the state of its buildings.

"It had been stripped. The walls were barely standing," she said. "It was gross."

Emptied of pupils after the public housing high-rises were torn down, the boarded school was empty for several years as vandals took it apart, Daniel said. She was not on the board at the time it was boarded up.

Bulldozers have turned the old school into a rubble field. Only earth and pieces of the foundation remain.

By September, the new public housing townhouses under construction on three sides of the school site will be filled with tenants and homeowners -- three years after the high-rise Lexington Terrace public housing units were demolished.

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