There's always excitement in the air at the beginning of a new school year. Students arriving for their first day at the Henderson-Hopkins school in East Baltimore this month could hear it before they even reached the front door, as families were greeted by cheerful conga music from Abu the Flutemaker.
The Baltimore musician, otherwise known as William Emerson, is something of an old friend to returning students. He has been making musical instruments out of found objects—and sharing his love of music in the city's schools—for the past 47 years.
"It's just awesome," said parent Lynnia Hurt, mother of two students—a fifth-grader and a graduate of its middle school. "This really makes the day feel special."
Henderson-Hopkins is a contract school of the Baltimore City Public Schools System operated by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in partnership with Morgan State University.
As the school year began, first-year principal Peter Kannam welcomed students at the main entrance, and throughout the school as the morning wore on, working to meet as many of the more-than 500 students and their families as he could.
"I'm thrilled to join the team at Henderson-Hopkins," he said. "We are committed to delivering on our promise to create an excellent education for our students in East Baltimore, a vision that includes fostering a diverse and active community dedicated to supporting students and families."
This fall, students will also notice important changes to the school's physical space at Henderson-Hopkins—recently named Maryland's most beautiful school by Insider magazine—including in its classrooms, common areas, and corridors. With improved acoustical treatments, lighting, and way-finding signs, the hallways are quieter, brighter, and easier to navigate. They are also warmer and more colorful.
"We've put a mineral coating over the precast concrete insulated panels," said Ana Maria Castro, president of JRS Architects and the project's design consultant. "Not paint, but a light coating of color. And it works really beautifully, making the space more cheerful."
The changes amount to much more than a few cosmetic touches. In the elementary wing, six new enclosed classrooms are seamlessly integrated into the existing structure, giving second through fifth grades access to more focused learning spaces.
Procuring these spaces entailed a number of logistical adjustments.
"We worked really closely with [Johns Hopkins School of Education Vice Dean] Mariale Hardiman and university administration to figure out exactly what adjustments we could make to preserve a lot of open, flexible, collaborative spaces while augmenting focused learning in the classroom," Castro said.
One of those collaborative spaces—the common "cluster" area serving the second and third grades—now bursts with murals and oversized canvases of colorful fish, smiling dolphins, and marine mammals. Strengthened by soaring clerestory windows on all four sides, the effect is something like walking into a big aquarium.
"The fish are colorful, fun, and playful," Castro said. "They engage the kids' imagination. A lot of thought went into the original design, but the real test is if it truly serves the children. We tried to make the building support their academic success."
Kannam said school administration also has added new after-school programming.
"We've doubled the number of slots available in our after-school programming—all at no cost to families," he said. "And we are going to begin serving supper to any student who is enrolled in after-school programming."
In addition to previous programs such as African Drumming, Lego Robotics, and Sisters Circle, the school now will offer Flag Football, Horizons Theater Club, Pipeline Soccer, and Hero Boys, a running group.
"Beefing up our after-school programming, along with building school culture and increasing rigor in our classes, is part of our larger effort to unleash our students' joy and passion while preparing them for academic success and fulfillment in a rapidly changing world," Kannam said.
It's a theme that resonates with many parents.
"My kids have been happy here," Hurt said. "I do not have problems with them waking up all grumpy and not wanting to go to school—especially today."