School move eyed warily

Special ed program not welcomed by all downtown merchants

Facility for disturbed teens

August 15, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The proposed opening of a school for emotionally disturbed teen-agers in the Mount Vernon cultural district is drawing mixed reactions from shop owners, with some glad it will fill a long-vacant building and others worried that rowdy boys will hurt efforts to revitalize the area.

New Foundations Inc. plans to open a special education program for 40 boys at 20 E. Franklin St., two doors from the upscale Tio Pepe's restaurant, as the neighborhood has been debating whether the growing number of social service agencies has been smothering business in Baltimore's cultural center.

Business leaders and Catholic Charities have been trying to find a new home for the church's Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, in part because many of the people it attracts are believed to break into cars and harass customers of the area's struggling shops and restaurants.

The city issued an occupancy permit for the school Friday, but the state Department of Education must approve its planned Sept. 1 move to Mount Vernon.

Miguel Sanz, owner of Tio Pepe restaurant at 10 E. Franklin St., praised by restaurant critics as one of the best in the city, said he is nervous about the school's opening.

"The positive thing is that a building next door that has been vacant for years will be occupied," Sanz said. "This is not the kind of use that we would like to see there. But I really don't know enough about the school to know what judgment to make."

For the past three years, the school has run a program at East Fayette and St. Paul streets for children ages 11 to 16 who have emotional problems too severe for the city public school system's special education programs.

More space needed

Officials of the school say they want to move several blocks north, because their program is expanding and the new location is about twice as large as their old building. They hope to grow to 60 students in a few years and add 17- and 18-year-olds.

City and state tax dollars cover the annual cost of $46,900 a student at the privately run special education program.

More than half of the school's 40 students last year had been hospitalized for psychiatric problems and a third had committed criminal offenses, The Sun reported in December.

Vince Collins, director of the school, said Friday that none of his students is violent or poses a threat to local businesses.

Collins said the state Department of Juvenile Justice had assigned probation officers to 13 of his students last year because of minor violations such as trespassing, shoplifting and disorderly conduct. That figure has since decreased to six students, he said.

"I want to be a good neighbor and run a program that will help these students feel good about themselves and contribute to the community," said Collins, a Parkville resident whose company, Ogden Danks LLC, bought the empty building for $250,000 on Dec. 28.

Collins said his students help the city by working with the Downtown Partnership business organization to clean up graffiti and litter.

Kevin McKee, owner of Storybored Videos at 525 N. Charles St., said he plans to organize a protest, because he believes that Mount Vernon is overburdened with social service agencies and that the addition of another will undermine efforts to revive the district.

Social service organizations in the Mount Vernon area include Our Sister's Place Lodge shelter for homeless women and families, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church soup kitchen, and a state-run halfway house on Cathedral Street for people released from mental hospitals.

In addition, the Women's Housing Coalition might soon open a transitional housing facility for battered women in the neighborhood.

Robert Gruber, co-owner of the People United clothing and imported goods store at 516 N. Charles St., said, "It would be illogical for any of the merchants here to want 60 delinquent kids hanging out on our corners."

Other business owners said they are happy that the school is spending $500,000 to renovate and occupy the long-vacant 20 E. Franklin St. building, which once housed a public defender's office.

Diligent supervision

Jimmy Rouse, president of the 84-year-old Historic Charles Street Association, said he was initially skeptical but his research has led him to believe New Foundations is diligent about supervising its students.

"I am really convinced that this school will have a positive impact on the neighborhood," said Rouse. "Their staff will be closely monitoring the students when they're in the school and taking responsibility for them when they're in the neighborhood."

Business owners and security guards who work near the school's location in the Chicago Title Insurance building on Fayette Street give mixed reviews of the students' behavior.

A lawyer and a legal secretary who work in the building said the youngsters are quiet.

A cashier who sometimes serves them lunch in the Fresco Deli across the street said they are "wonderful, really nice and polite."

A pair of attendants who watch a garage near the school's entrance complained that the students are often rude and rowdy and that they get in fights while boarding buses.

The Mount Vernon neighborhood has shown signs of both health and struggle in recent years, with several storefronts remaining vacant but a renovated 114-unit apartment building at Park and Centre streets filling up last spring, and a new restaurant, cafe, bookstore and piano shop planned for North Charles and Centre streets.

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