Children running on track at Henderson-Hopkins

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

On track for a healthy school year

A new facility at Henderson-Hopkins creates outdoor fitness opportunities for the East Baltimore neighborhood where recreation facilities are limited

A festive late summer evening in Eager Park marked the grand opening of a new track and field at Henderson-Hopkins on Monday, kicking off a yearlong focus on exercise and wellness at the K-8 school.

Hundreds of students, parents, teachers, and community members were on hand for the event, which featured a health and wellness fair with local vendors specializing in fitness, nutrition, mental health, and extracurricular activities for kids. Players from Johns Hopkins football and the men's and women's lacrosse teams provided clinics and demonstrations for the students, and the Johns Hopkins Medicine Mobile Vaccination Truck was on-site to provide COVID-19 vaccinations for the community.

Completed this summer, the track and field will encourage students to be active during recess and provide high-quality facilities for after-school programming, including track, football, and soccer. The facility will also help the school promote student and community health. Funded by Johns Hopkins through a combination of donor and institutional funds at a cost of more than $1 million, the track and 60-yard sports field will be open to the public during non-school hours to create outdoor fitness opportunities for the East Baltimore neighborhood where recreation facilities are limited.

"I'm so humbled to be here with you all today to celebrate yet another milestone in East Baltimore for the Henderson-Hopkins School," JHU President Ron Daniels said. In his prepared remarks, President Daniels also shared, "We hope this field will be a place for the indomitable spirit of this community to shine; a place for everyone to get out, get strong, and be well; and a hub for after-school programs and activities, for pick-up basketball games, and, of course, for impromptu races."

The event also featured a little healthy competition: Daniels, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, and Henderson-Hopkins sixth grader Zoe Zambrana laced up their running shoes for a ceremonial race around the track, with Zambrana taking an early lead to capture first place. After the first ceremonial lap, the Henderson-Hopkins students took to the track, racing each other around for the nine laps it takes to make a mile on the 166-meter track. Parents practically had to drag their kids off the field well after event had concluded—exactly the reaction that school leaders were hoping for.

"Our goal is that this new track and field can help us spark a health and wellness movement in our community as we emerge from the pandemic to keep us all healthy," said Peter Kannam, principal at Henderson-Hopkins, 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. "This track demonstrates how we value, we see, and cherish every one of our students and their families, as we put them on a pathway to success."

Added J.D. Merrill, assistant principal: "This event kicks off an entire year focusing on academic success and wellness. The pandemic has forced so many of us into isolation and inactivity, but with this new space we can come together and run and play safely."

Speaking from personal experience, Mayor Scott said running track as a student in Baltimore City Public Schools helped him become the man he is today.

"We know it's going to take all of us working together to make sure that every one of these youngsters reaches their full potential," Scott said. "Having facilities like this helps to help our young people grow to be the best versions of themselves."

The track is one more way that Henderson-Hopkins will serve as an anchor for the local community, said Christopher Morphew, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

"As school communities across the country are coming back together, you remind us that students need more than just academic success—they need social and emotional success," Morphew said. "Today, we are not just dedicating an athletic field. We are giving each Henderson-Hopkins scholar a way to return to school as a whole child—social, emotional, physical, expressive, collaborative, and playful."

Attendees of the grand opening celebration were treated to grab-and-go dinners, free boxes of produce, backpacks, T-shirts, and other swag from vendors including Command Health and Wellness, I Am Mentality, Land of Kush, MissionFit, the Maryland Food Bank, Pipeline Soccer, Shareef's Grill, and the World Central Kitchen.

Parents, teachers, and students were joyful, and the event felt like a much-needed break after months and months of Zoom, virtual learning, and isolation. Sharon Dortch, a parent of two Henderson-Hopkins students, said the school has been an anchor during a tumultuous time. As she has struggled with homelessness, currently living in a nearby shelter, the Henderson-Hopkins community has provided a safe haven for her and her children. She volunteers to direct traffic in the morning after bringing her children to school. "This is just a very special place. As you can see, it's all about the children," Dortch said, pointing to the dozens of children, doing everything from throwing footballs to racing around the track. "It's just been a blessing to me and my family."

Newly hired second grade teacher Britney Drayton said the appeal goes beyond the parents and students. "The kids just love the new field," Drayton said. "But let's face it. A lot of us have gained a little weight during COVID. So this is great for everybody—the community, the students, and the teachers, too."