Officials still want downtown high school

`We are not giving up,' Russo says, after strategy meeting with O'Malley

February 12, 2002|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Despite criticism from a number of prominent business leaders, city school officials have not given up the idea of a high school in downtown Baltimore.

Schools chief Carmen V. Russo met with Mayor Martin O'Malley yesterday to discuss a strategy for finding locations for six, small new high schools that would open throughout the city in the next several years.

The meeting came after setbacks in Russo's high-profile plan to remake the city's failing neighborhood high schools. She agreed last week to drop a proposal for a small high school in the partially vacant Northwood shopping plaza, and her proposal for a second one downtown was strongly criticized.

Russo would not comment on how hard she is willing to push the plan to put 500 students in the first two floors of a Charles Plaza residential tower, near Saratoga and Charles streets.

"We are not giving up," she said. "We are looking to work with the community and their issues."

During the afternoon meeting with his staff and school staff, O'Malley said, he stressed the need to find a solution to the problems troubling city high schools, including high dropout rates and low achievement.

"This is not something that is simply a goal of the school system, this is an imperative of this administration ... and one we hope to move on in very substantial ways this year," the mayor said.

Last week, several business leaders, including Jimmy Rouse, vice chairman of Charles Street Development Corp.; Michele L. Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore; and Thomas N. Marudas, representing the offices of Peter G. Angelos and Westside Renaissance Inc., voiced opposition to the plan at a public forum.

"There are a lot of challenges here, and the sense is that this is not the right time or the right place to move this facility into this building," Whelley said.

Whelley and Marudas did not return telephone calls yesterday.

David H. Hillman, chief executive officer of Southern Management Corp. and the owner of the building, said he has some concerns.

"Am I perfectly comfortable with a bunch of teen-agers in a downtown and residential area?" Hillman said. "No."

When he was approached about the idea six to eight months ago, Hillman said he rejected it. But, he said, he then met some of the students from the program.

"It is not a reform school," he said. "It is an honors program."

The school system would like to open the school in September with 125 ninth-graders in a site vacated by the Johns Hopkins University more than a year ago.

The school would house an Academy of Finance and an Academy of Travel and Tourism. Both are programs now at Lake Clifton and Southwestern high schools.

The school system would add a grade each year until the academies are completely downtown, close to the hotels and financial institutions where students have internships in their junior and senior years.

Students must have a 75 average and 90 percent attendance in eighth grade to be eligible for the program, and maintain those standards once they are accepted.

About 85 percent of the students graduate from the program, and 90 percent go on to college. All students are drug-tested in their 11th-grade and 12th-grade years before they work for businesses.

Hillman said he has been bombarded with "nasty letters and threats" primarily from business people, who oppose the plan.

He said he would require that the school system provide security and would specify that students could not loiter around the property. He said he sees no reason not to try the plan.

"We are just going to move one grade in there for a year, and if that doesn't work, then it won't go forward," said Hillman, who has had difficulty leasing the space for offices. "We won't be out a lot of money, and the schools won't be out a lot of money."

Hillman said that even if the school board votes to give Russo authority to negotiate a lease, they might not reach an agreement.

"We are a long way from a done deal," he said.

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