The opening of schoolhouse doors at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Early Childhood Center on the Henderson-Hopkins School campus marks one small step for more than 100 infants and pre-school children—and one heartfelt leap for the relationship between a revitalizing East Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins community.
"This is a great opportunity for a neighborhood that needs these opportunities badly," says David W. Andrews, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, which operates the ECC in partnership with Morgan State University's School of Education and Urban Studies. "When you see the number of young children in the neighborhood who need the type of support we'll be able to provide, it's very fulfilling for all of us."
"I look out the window every day and see progress, with boarded-up buildings coming down for future development," says Jessie Bradley, executive director of the Early Childhood Center, which is located at 2100 Ashland Ave., just north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. "And I hear stories of struggling families. But I see the demolished buildings as a metaphor for what we're trying to do. We're trying to build something out of that rubble. We're trying to build relationships. And it gives me a real sense of pride—and anxiety—as we open the new facility."
"We're helping to change the area," adds Andrew B. Frank, special adviser to Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels on economic development. "It's a much safer neighborhood than it was. Now it's a question of changing people's perceptions."
The first of an anticipated 130 toddlers, ages 6 weeks to 5 years, are scheduled to enter the school beginning Sept. 2, with the official opening set for Sept. 10.
Housed alongside the Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School, which opened on the Ashland Avenue campus in January, the ECC will offer the latest research-based approaches to early education and will welcome children from federally subsidized Early Head Start and Head Start programs as well as of those whose parents work on the university's East Baltimore campus, at the Kennedy-Krieger Institute, and in nearby retail businesses, who will pay market-rate tuition. Income-sensitive scholarships are available to approximately 30 full-tuition families on a first-come, first-served basis during this first year.
The diversity of students, all agree, is crucial.
"It's our priority to have a true community school," says Andrews. "The whole design is aimed at achieving that. When you understand the density of poverty in the neighborhood, it becomes really clear that the more you can create a diverse, mixed-income community, the better you're going to be able to meet the needs of all kinds of kids in that neighborhood."
It's an East Baltimore area inundated for years by poverty and accompanying drug traffic and crime. But it has undergone radical transformation over the past decade, in large measure due to the East Baltimore Development Inc. initiative, the $1.8 billion, 88-acre project involving new homes and businesses, biotech lab space, a park and hotel, and the $43 million Henderson-Hopkins facility.
The nearly 30,000-square-foot ECC preschool contains 14 classrooms; indoor common areas for gross- and fine-motor play; protected playground space; a 5,000-square-foot Family Resource Center with access to digital and print resources; a dining area offering wholesome nutrition as well as on-site cooking demonstrations; a family and community library; and an Early Learning Professional Development Classroom, led by the ECC's master teacher, which will feature discreet windows for outside observation.
The school has one teacher for every three infants, one for every four toddlers, one for every eight preschoolers, and one for 10 pre-kindergartners.
As opening day approached, the ECC offered tours for prospective children. "It was thrilling to see families coming through the doors—a real thrill," says Bradley, the executive director. "I mean, to put a face to people's names, and watch their eyes, and [they're] thinking, 'Oh, I hope I can get my child in here,' and kids running up and down hallways, and parents and grandparents saying, 'This is going to be your school.' The desire they have and the sense that we're opening doors for them" were inspiring, she says.
Andrew Frank recalls a time when there wasn't so much hope in the area.
A former executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp. who went on to become the city's deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development, Frank remembers when 70 percent of the structures in the neighborhood—known as Middle East—were vacant.
"By virtually all measures, it was the most struggling neighborhood in Baltimore," he says. "It was the result of the perfect storm of the loss of manufacturing jobs; white, and then African-American, flight; followed by red-lining, crime and drugs, and flipping."
All of this led to city hall's taking dramatic action, started under then Mayor Martin O'Malley: acquiring 2,000 mostly decaying properties, relocating about 750 families and offering them cash settlements worth considerably more than the assessed value of their homes, and commencing much tearing down and rebuilding.
As mayor, "Gov. O'Malley ushered in something different," Frank says. "He identified city strengths on which to build. I know that sounds like a cliché, but he looked at Hopkins, as the largest employer, to help rebuild East Baltimore. It's no longer Bethlehem Steel, or Esskay, or Western Electric. It's Hopkins. And he said, Let's build on the strength that is Hopkins and other hospitals and universities.
"A term the city uses today is anchor institutions, which have a greater stake in their neighborhoods," Frank says. "It was in Hopkins' enlightened self-interest to help rebuild the neighborhood."
"You serve the child, you serve the community," adds Bradley.
And, Frank says, the Early Childhood Center opens with the surrounding neighborhood already showing promising signs.
"I think people would be surprised," he says, "if they looked at crime statistics for the area, compared to what they were. Statistically, it's about as safe as Federal Hill, as Canton, as any neighborhood in Baltimore. And people are moving in; they're renting apartments, buying homes. We had an enormous bump from the previous year."
Andrews will vouch for that. As dean of Johns Hopkins' School of Education, he not only oversees the ECC; he and his wife moved into the neighborhood.
"We wanted to be a part of it at a very intimate level," Andrews says. "And now we're seeing young families move into the area. When we moved in a few years ago, there were homes that had been on the market for five years. Now there's a demand for housing that we can't keep up with.
"Look, we've said from the beginning, our goal is not to gentrify the neighborhood," Andrews says. "If we do that, we've lost. That's not the goal. Our goal is to create a strong presence of original residents in a mixed-income community. And we know there are still a lot of strong feelings about Hopkins' intentions and staying power in an initiative like this. You know, are we in it for good, and do we have the right intentions?
"Well, we put our name on it, and there's no way to walk away from it."