Old lockup gets a second life as provider of second chances

Ceremony celebrates police station's new role

November 18, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The 1896 brick building rising over Federal Hill rowhouses stood for law and order as Baltimore's Southern District police station - a neighborhood institution with 14 cells to house suspects, a courtroom and desks for police officers stationed there every hour of the day and night.

Yesterday, the stately structure at 28 E. Ostend St. was celebrated in a new role - as an adult learning center with sunny rooms on all four stories.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, speaking to a gathering of 300 at the dedication ceremony, summed up the difference between then and now.

"This building used to be to lock people up," O'Malley said. "Now it is to unlock human minds and potential."

For the South Baltimore Learning Center, a nonprofit group that struggled for seven years to raise the $2.3 million needed to refurbish the building, it was a day to show off the new look.

"Is she not glorious?" Sonia Socha, the center's executive director, said of the restoration, which preserved period features such as arched windows, wainscoting and exterior gas lamps, and added modern touches, such as a computer lab.

For most of the 1990s, the center was housed in the old building - but it was hardly the same, Socha said. The top two floors were closed off, paint was peeling, weeds were proliferating outside, and there was a constant shuffle to make do around the cells and other features of its original use. Police left the station in 1986.

The learning center gives free instruction to about 600 adults every year, including tutoring in the basics - reading, writing, arithmetic and spelling - and classes to prepare people for high school equivalency degrees.

Jim Fragomeni, the program manager, said survival is the motive for learning to read late in life.

"Education for education's sake is not what motivates people," he said. "Reading is a linchpin they know they need."

Beyond needing to read household bills, Fragomeni said, there is often a need for cultural literacy that the center's teachers help to meet by discussing how to read a newspaper, for example, or approach a book.

"You have to explain a table of contents," he said, "and start at the beginning. We want this to be like no other school they've ever seen, since school didn't work the first time around."

Beverly Kammerer, 54, is a student who comes to the center twice a week to improve her reading skills and her understanding of practical subjects like geography. She has read Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham and is now learning the layout of the United States.

Her teacher, Barbara Rothenberg, said those who can't read lack basic knowledge of the world.

"There are a whole lot of things that seem obvious, which are not," said Rothenberg as she pointed to a small globe.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said at the ceremony that teaching adults English literacy struck a chord with him as the son of Greek immigrants. The center "stands squarely in the noble tradition of American mobility," Sarbanes said.

Private funds contributed 40 percent of the renovation costs, and the state provided the lion's share of the public funds - more than $1 million, partly through historic preservation tax credits.

The center's annual operating budget is nearly $800,000, Socha said, and some of that money will be raised by renting space to other nonprofit groups.

Lena Cosner, a 1999 graduate of the program, gave a brief talk yesterday, describing how she dropped out of high school at the age of 14. She is now the mother of a 16-year-old daughter who skipped a grade and is scheduled to graduate from high school next spring.

Cosner, who became a nurse in July just as she turned 40, said the revitalized building reminded her of herself. "We both got a second chance," Cosner said.

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