Church helps out school in a fix

First and Franklin members renovate Coleridge-Taylor Elementary's damaged library

Baltimore & Region


Two years after a leaky roof, collapsing ceiling tiles, sodden carpets, ruined books and spreading mold forced its closure, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School's library reopened yesterday with fresh optimism from parents, volunteers and school officials about the West Baltimore institution's future.

The problems at Coleridge-Taylor became so bad that the school was closed for three days in April 2004 while environmental engineers tested the air to see whether mold had infested the ventilation system. Maintenance at the 80-year-old Coleridge-Taylor, like at many city schools, had been delayed past the breaking point.

"Water was coming in through the ceiling, floors were soaked, mold was growing on the walls," said Michael Cheatham, who was principal at the time. "This building, from every corner, it was always something."

Around that time, the Rev. Alison Halsey of nearby First and Franklin Presbyterian Church was sitting with a group of congregants who were lamenting how much the nation spends on the military and how little on schools. One of them had read an article in The Sun about the problems at Coleridge-Taylor, and they called Cheatham to offer help.

The city had removed most of the sodden debris in the room and had replaced the roof, but the first time the volunteers walked in, they found a smelly, crumbling shell of a room.

"You couldn't breathe when you walked in here," Halsey said.

One of the congregants at First and Franklin, Corena Bridges, attended the school, as did her mother, her three aunts and five siblings. Her husband, William Bridges, is a contractor, and the two of them took charge, building a room with a storytelling stage, secluded study carrels and display spaces for pupils' art.

The bookshelves and carrels came from a Washington law firm that was renovating its offices, and William Bridges got from a client's family room three 10-foot-high pink art deco cabinets, whose style mimics that of the 1926 building, believed to be among the city school system's oldest. Members of First and Franklin and other churches donated books, and more are on the way, though plenty of room remains on the shelves.

Sandra Graves, who took over this year when Cheatham became an academic coach for the school system, said the school now has a full-time librarian and will be able to give pupils access to a much wider variety of books and exposure to research techniques. Dozens of parents, alumni and community volunteers who attended the opening and a ceremony honoring Cheatham praised the principals for their work to improve the school, which in 2004 was removed from the state's failing schools list.

Graves isn't finished following Cheatham's work to fix the school's structural problems. After the ribbon cutting, she buttonholed state Sen. Verna L. Jones, who was on hand for the ceremony, about ways to get new windows. And last week, Graves said, she sent a 16-point e-mail to the school system's facilities department about maintenance problems.

"There are challenges in the school system," Jones said. "But this is an example of what's working."

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