Five years ago a coalition of state and city agencies embarked on an ambitious, $1 billion plan to renovate, replace and combine at least 23 of the most run-down and under-enrolled schools in Baltimore—all by the spring of 2022. Dorothy I. Height Elementary in Reservoir Hill was among two of those new, 21st Century Schools that opened Wednesday.
The school, named for an early civil rights leader who was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, was bustling as teachers unpacked boxes and put the finishing touches on their rooms. IT staffers opened computers; others filled media center shelves with books and the cafeteria staff put away food deliveries.
Kieara Mitchell, who taught second grade math and science at John Eager Howard, one of two schools that had been combined to create Dorothy I. Height, was busy getting her new classroom ready, taping posters and charts to the wall and organizing the desks.
“The windows here give it a lot of natural light, so feel it feels more open, airy, more inviting,” she said. “It’s a lot of space compared to what we used to have. The furniture here is better.”
The bright, green classroom chairs are slightly flexible, so second graders can squirm and bend in class. The glass walls of the classroom border a shared learning space -- called the collaborative area - in a small wing off the hallway.
The have “some technology in there,” said principal Tamara Hanson.
“We have a smart board so the children can conduct their own lessons. I can’t wait to see how the children respond because they haven’t been in a space like that.”
The students arrived with wide eyes that gave way to broad smiles as they walked into a school with 4th and 5th graders in suits greeting them and the sound of drummers pounding insistent beats.
Fourth grader Kyron Moore and William Ball, a third grader, were impressed with the new building.
“I think about the new qualities, like the lights, the steps, the gym and stuff,” Kyron said. “And the cafeteria. It’s a lot of stuff.”
William said it all looked nice “because we got a brand new everything.”
As Principal Hanson greeted families and showed off the new features of the school, she said her old school, John Eager Howard, was falling apart.
“We had a lot of infrastructural issues,” she said. “So if you can imagine in May when it got very, very hot the kids couldn’t even breathe.”
And, like many Baltimore city schools, they had problems with the heating system in the winter.
“We had days where children had to sit in classrooms with gloves, hats, just to have instruction,” she recounted. “The bathrooms, plumbing didn’t work, of course. You know we couldn’t use the water fountains.”
John Eager Howard was one of about 60 schools that had major heating problems over the winter. In January state and city officials promised $2.5 million to fix those problems.
But bright and shiny as it may be, the new school has caused some concerns for the families of Westside Elementary, the other school that was closed as Dorothy I. Height opened, according to Nicole Price, 21st Century Schools spokeswoman.
“In every school community I go to you have generations of families who still live in that community who attended that school and so when you see you’re closing it you’re sending a signal to them that something is wrong,” she explained. “And as much as you say no, it has nothing to do with the academic performance of the school per se, it’s about making sure we can get them in the learning environment they deserve. Those are challenging conversations.”
Back in Kieara Mitchell’s second grade classroom, the students were excited, even a little bit intimidated by their new room. But Mitchell said she plans to take full advantage of the new space that allows them to take virtual field trips and provides a science lab.