Schools eye final option for relocation

Port Discovery space proposed as site for high school academies

Museum site coveted for new school

July 27, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Port Discovery is the city school system's last best hope for opening a new downtown high school by September.

With just over five weeks remaining before the start of the academic year, the district is still seeking a site, even if it's only temporary, to accommodate 80 to 90 students who will study finance and travel and tourism in college-preparatory academies.

More than a dozen potential sites, including one at Charles Plaza that generated considerable opposition from business leaders, have been considered and then scrapped.

Now the school system is trying to win approval for a plan to rent the Port Discovery building at Market Place. If the plan falls through, school officials would give up on opening the new school this year - a major setback in their high school reform drive.

Schools Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo said yesterday that separate finance and travel and tourism academies will continue at their current locations at Lake Clifton-Eastern and Southwestern high schools, respectively, if the latest proposal doesn't work out.

"There is a program, there's just a question of where will the program be," she said.

Finding a spot for the high school - which is supposed to open with only ninth-graders, then add a grade a year until it has between 350 and 400 students - has been a long, drawn-out and sticky process from the start. A proposal to put it at Charles Plaza ran afoul of a group of business leaders led by attorney Peter G. Angelos, who argued that it wouldn't be compatible with efforts to redevelop Charles Street.

At their urging, and that of Mayor Martin O'Malley, school officials began scouring the area for alternatives.

One possibility was the historic Hendler Creamery building east of President Street, but it was considered too far outside downtown. A renovated firehouse at 10 S. Gay Street would have been perfect, school officials said, except for the fact that it sits right off The Block.

The next plan was to put the school somewhere on Baltimore City Community College's downtown campus.

"They just didn't have the room," school board Vice Chairman C. William Struever said.

Struever said Port Discovery would make a fine temporary - and possibly permanent - home for the two academies, whose students will participate in internships at local businesses and, for the most part, go on to college. He said the space, which the children's museum hopes to vacate for the nearby Columbus Center, would need virtually no improvements and that he sees "no reason" why the deal can't be worked out.

"We are all eager to have this done," he said.

The plan already has its detractors, though, including developer David Cordish, whose projects include the Power Plant Live complex across the square. Others have raised concerns about the site's proximity to bars, strip clubs and other adult entertainment.

O'Malley said yesterday that he supports the proposal to move the museum and have the school take its place. He said he doesn't see the building's proximity to The Block as a problem.

But he added that the decision is up to the Port Discovery board, which has the lease on the property. He said board members might want to consider offers from Cordish and others to see if those uses might be better for the city.

Russo said that the process of finding a site for the new high school - one of several being planned - has been frustrating, but that she is not surprised by the difficulty. It will take time, she said, for the community to buy into the idea of integrating a high school into downtown, or any nontraditional setting.

"It's typical everywhere," she said. "That learning process and the comfort level and the trust that you have to build around these initiatives - some cities started way before we did. We're at what I call Stage One."

She said at least 80 children have already been taking classes in two public school programs at Port Discovery for the past two years, and that they haven't created any problems.

Sun staff writer Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

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