Tensions simmer over school in Federal Hill

Incidents put residents, Digital Harbor students at odds, dredging up suspicions of disrespect, racism

February 19, 2007|By Sara Neufeld and Brent Jones | Sara Neufeld and Brent Jones,Sun reporters

When Baltimore's troubled Southern High School was reborn five years ago with a $42 million makeover as Digital Harbor High, the school committed to fill 20 percent of its freshman classes with neighborhood children.

For the past two years, however, the showcase citywide technology magnet school in Federal Hill hasn't received enough applications from nearby residents to fulfill that commitment.

That lack of interest is emblematic of the gulf between Digital Harbor's mostly black and mostly poor student body and the predominantly white and affluent neighborhood where the students go to school.

It is a gulf that manifests itself in the fears and wariness on the part of some merchants and residents on the one hand and suspicions of racism on the part of some students on the other.

And it is a gulf that, to some, has elevated a string of relatively minor criminal acts - a smashed car windshield, a purse-snatching - into a mini-crisis.

In October, a fight between two girls in the heart of Federal Hill's business district attracted about 100 unruly Digital Harbor students, one of whom smashed a car windshield.

Then last month, unnamed Digital Harbor students were accused - perhaps erroneously - of stealing a woman's purse and throwing it into the Inner Harbor, causing her to fall in. No arrests have been made.

Dennis Trencher, 60, who lives near the school, says most students behave as they walk through the neighborhood after school, but he sees some trying to open car doors and approaching residents in a threatening way. Between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., he says, "I'm intentionally not on the street."

His biggest complaint is litter from students' snacks. "The chicken bones are everywhere," he says. "It's a pig sty."

Meanwhile, some students say the actions and words of neighborhood residents tell them they're not welcome.

"They think we bring danger to the neighborhood," says Kache Albright, a 15-year-old Digital Harbor freshman. "They think we're 'hood rats."

Trying to co-exist

Digital Harbor's presence in a gentrifying South Baltimore neighborhood just steps away from the city's biggest tourist destination illustrates a challenge: Can the school peacefully coexist with a neighborhood that views its students as outsiders?

Longtime residents acknowledge that students' behavior in the streets was far worse when the neighborhood school on Covington Street was Southern. Digital Harbor now shares the building with another small high school, National Academy Foundation.

Digital Harbor serves about 800 students from around the city. With a state-of-the-art facility and no admissions criteria, it is Baltimore's most popular high school, selecting by lottery a fraction of those who apply.

Digital Harbor prepares students to go to college or directly to careers in technology. All students select one of four career tracks: programming and software, video production, information systems or networking.

Baltimore has essentially eliminated neighborhood high schools, instead letting students choose from a variety of small, themed schools around the city.

Students say they want the Federal Hill community to know the good things going on at Digital Harbor: The school met standards on state tests last year, has three new Advanced Placement classes and boasts one of the state's best track teams.

But most residents see Digital Harbor students only on their way to and from school. Many are empty-nesters or young professionals who don't have high-school-age children, leaving them without much of a connection to Digital Harbor. Some send their children to private schools.

"Because we're in Federal Hill, where everybody pays so much money for their houses, they don't want a high school right in the middle of it," says Courtney Smith, a 17-year-old senior. "They expect us to be more polite and not act like teenagers."

In what was once a predominantly white, blue-collar area, luxury townhouses are going up steps from the school campus, with new Ritz Carlton condominiums just around the corner.

After classes let out at 3:35 p.m., many students walk through Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor to catch public buses home, often gathering at eateries along the way. Sometimes, students say and school administrators confirm, bus drivers see groups of teens waiting and keep driving.

A Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman said officials have heard no complaints about buses bypassing Federal Hill stops. She said a driver does have the authority not to pick up passengers if the bus is full.

Minutes after the final school bell rang on a recent afternoon, dozens of students flooded the Cross Street sidewalk and headed west toward Light Street in search of food and transportation.

Cross Street Market is the most popular destination. Students pack the Light Street entrance and provide an afternoon rush for a handful of food stands.

John Nichols, owner of Steve's Lunch, says students can get rowdy at times, but if he tells them to quiet down, they listen.

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