Using the schools as leverage for neighborhoods

Design stage of $1.1 billion school construction and renovation project underway

October 31, 2013|Dan Rodricks

The planning is underway in Baltimore's $1 billion-plus, decade-long effort to bring public schools into the 21st century — in fact, there's a design expo at Morgan State University this weekend — which means we have entered a seminal period in the city's history.

I'm sure that sounds grandiose. So let me concede a point to the jaded and the cynical who reject the possibility of The Next Big Thing ever coming to the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin.

The city's long recovery from the loss of unionized manufacturing jobs and middle-class families, the epoch of drug addiction and violence, the years of declining schools and neighborhoods — all of that has left many of us (maybe most of us) suspicious of anything that claims to be "transformative." We've heard such talk before — remember Mayor Martin O'Malley and "Believe"? — but this time, the potential has not been overstated.

Spending more than a billion bucks on schools is not some educational fad. It's a profound commitment to the future of thousands of children, many of them poor, who need and deserve safe, uplifting places in which to grow and learn.

"Transform Baltimore" is the theme of the successful campaign for the city-state funding of the big school construction and renovation project. It's a grand theme and a wonderful notion. Some might call it pretentious.

But if the people currently thinking about all this can push for schools that are more than schools — schools that are generators of progress in the neighborhoods where they stand — the city might see a real transformation. I'm talking about schools inspired in design and designed to inspire, schools that parents and children view with pride, maybe even with awe.

It's not hard to imagine Baltimore's neighborhoods as a series of villages.

Now imagine the schools as centers of each village. Get that? The school — education, learning — as the exalted center of community life.

So, first and foremost, the school is a place of learning, and I'll leave that part of the vision to the educators and architects. (Just make sure there are lots of windows and natural light.)

Once you establish the school, you build out from it: health services, a day care center, recreational space, a community center, a place for senior citizens, new housing, a job-training program, some retail (including a small-footprint supermarket that sells fresh produce), maybe a police station, maybe a satellite campus of Johns Hopkins or another university. The streets are busy all day, and into the night. The school lights, powered by solar panels, stay on for all but a few hours.

You end up with a concentration of the things people need, always with the school at its core.

Davin Hong, an architect who gets paid to think about such things, has sketched it out. He sees the school as the centerpiece of what he calls a Community Investment Zone.

"The concept centers around the belief that the health of schools and of neighborhoods are inextricably linked," says Hong. "To produce real, sustainable change in schools, the problems of neighborhoods and families need to be addressed simultaneously to that of children and education. The [Community Investment Zone] concept works to concentrate resources, improvements and amenities into a limited area around the new schools, to create a vibrant neighborhood center."

In Hong's vision, the school sits at the village square. The square is where people gather informally, and where festivals and other events are staged. The school and square establish the all-important "sense of place" for a neighborhood.

Adjoining the square are shops, clinics, a laundromat, a pharmacy maybe, a neighborhood services center shared by nonprofits that provide adult literacy sessions and maybe after-school mentoring programs for kids. There's recreational space nearby, and maybe room for a community garden and a picnic area. Imagine green space in inner-city Baltimore.

And, across the street from the school are rowhouses that have been restored through the city's Vacants-to-Value program.

Hong, a principal with RTKL Associates Inc. in Baltimore, wants to pull private developers into the planning for these investment zones, along with nonprofits and churches. I mentioned Hopkins and other universities; they should all be brought to the planning table. So should Baltimore-based businesses that stand to gain from having a better-educated local workforce.

The city, says Hong, would build or renovate the schools, of course, but also direct its funds for infrastructure improvements — streets, sidewalks, lights, parks — to these investment zones. "It is a holistic approach," he says, "that requires collaboration among all parties."

Hong's is just one idea in the mix, but it has, prima facie, powerful appeal and potential: Just as city and state funds will be used to leverage $1.1 billion in bonds to finance the new schools, the schools can be used to leverage a real transformation of the neighborhoods around them. Please, discuss ...

The Baltimore school system's 21st-Century Buildings Design Expo takes place Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Morgan State University Student Center. More information can be found at

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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