Boarding school location in works

Nonprofit seeks to use old Southwestern High

July 13, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Reporter

Southwestern High School, a huge concrete building shuttered last month, likely will be reborn as a public boarding school for disadvantaged students.

The nonprofit SEED Foundation is negotiating with Baltimore officials to get a 99-year lease for the site. The foundation would pay one dollar a year for the lease.

"It is a fantastic opportunity," said Tom Stosur, assistant deputy mayor. "It is a unique site in the city because it is in the city but set apart."

SEED, which runs a school in Washington, won approval in the General Assembly to launch a public boarding school in Maryland to serve disadvantaged students. The group expects to open in the fall of 2008 with 80 sixth-graders and grow to become a middle and high school of 400 students from around the state.

Southwestern High School sits on a 50-acre tract, much of it wooded, near Gwynns Falls Park in West Baltimore. The school was large enough to hold at least 2,000 students, but the city school board decided to close it this year as part of an effort to break up the largest high schools and reduce excess space.

The site is attractive because it offers enough land so that the school can have a true campus with a traditional quad and dormitories around it, said Carol Beck, SEED's director of new school development in Maryland.

The group plans to keep the main section of the 350,000- square-foot building, but eventually tear down a large wing that has about 90 classrooms, most of which get no natural light. Beck said SEED intends to spruce up the exterior and reconfigure the interior to serve the smaller boarding school. Dormitories will be built eventually.

The building's assets include a gym, a 1,000-seat auditorium, a pool and a library, all of which SEED will keep and might open up to the surrounding community.

Key staff hired

The SEED School in Baltimore has already hired two key staff members -- a head of the school and a principal -- and will soon begin accepting applications from students, Beck said.

The school has received wide public support based on the group's track record in Washington, where it started a school nine years ago.

About 97 percent of SEED graduates in Washington are accepted to four-year colleges and about 85 percent of them are on track to graduate from college, officials said. In most cases, the students are the first in their immediate families to go to college.

SEED officials say students benefit from staying in a boarding school because they sometimes live in circumstances that can be disruptive to education. In some instances, their immediate families have dissolved and they are living with cousins or other relatives.

In other cases, they have a single parent who may be working two jobs and may fear the child will be sucked in by neighborhood violence and drugs.

Funding in works

SEED has raised $5 million in capital through a gift from former Ravens owners Art and Patricia Modell, and the group is hoping to raise another $25 million in private funds to build the campus. The state will provide $25,000 per student per year for operating expenses, and about $7,000 to $8,000 will come from the student's home school district.

Most neighbors have yet to hear of the plan, but Stosur said SEED officials began meeting with community groups last night. Andrew Pearson, head of the Carroll Improvement Association, said his membership has not discussed the proposal, so he does not know whether it will gain neighborhood support. "I am sure it will be a big help to get some [teenagers] off the streets," he said.

State gives OK

The state has awarded SEED a contract to run the school, which was approved by the Board of Public Works this week.

SEED officials said they expect the lease to be finalized within the next several weeks.

State school superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick praised SEED's record with economically disadvantaged and high-risk students. "Their success is really excellent," she said.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said he has toured the campus in Washington and was impressed. "This is an excellent program," he said. "I'm so excited we're doing this in Maryland."

The governor said he hopes the legislature will allow the establishment of a second public boarding school. "There's definitely a need for another one of these things in the Washington area," O'Malley said.

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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