There’s a cultural cliche in Baltimore that when you ask someone where they went to school, you mean high school, not college. City residents define themselves by their high school rivalries, and there are few more recognizable, beloved or historic high schools than City, Western, Poly and Douglass.
But in 2023, all four facilities are dilapidated, having had few updates for decades. And so Baltimore City Public Schools, with substantial funding from the state, is about to embark on what is likely a decade of renovations to return them to modern school buildings.
Taking these buildings into the 21st century will be costly, requiring more than the $520 million that has now been set aside, parents and alumni said. While state officials say they must adhere to strict standards for spending on renovations, alumni and parents said they are concerned not enough thought has been put into making them the first-class institutions that city students deserve.
“This is something that will stand for generations. We can’t shortchange the future,” said Ervin McDaniel III, a Baltimore Polytechnic Institute parent and alumnus. “We all lose if we allow that to happen.”
Baltimore City College was founded in 1839, and has been known for generations for its strength in the humanities, while its rival across town, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, came much later, founded in 1883 for budding engineers and scientists. Both were originally boys schools.
Western High School, founded in 1844, is believed to be the oldest public all-girls high school in the country that is still operating. And Frederick Douglass High School was the first high school for Black students in Baltimore, and over the decades graduated the city’s widely acclaimed Black politicians, artists and lawyers, including former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, jazz musicians Cab Calloway and Ethel Ennis, and former Congressman Parren J. Mitchell.
Two of the schools — City and Douglass — are historic structures built in the 1920s that have endured for a century. The bones of the buildings are still wonderful, said Cyndi Smith, executive director of facilities planning, design and construction, as she walked down a hall at City College and looked out two-story Gothic windows that fill stairwells with light.
But there is much work to be done. The exterior stonework of City College is so desperately in need of repointing that water is seeping into the interior plaster walls, blistering and cracking it. The floors are polished to a mirror-like shine, but they are missing tile squares and pulling apart. The classroom lighting and ceilings are 1970s era, the air conditioning barely there and the classroom furniture looks decades old and uncomfortable.
The Poly and Western complex on Cold Spring Lane and Falls Road was built in the 1960s and sprawls for acres. It looks dated, weathered and in need of a refresh. There’s a swimming pool, specialized science and engineering classrooms, aquaponics laboratories and robotics space at Poly.
“Poly is a very specific STEM school,” said Warren Chambers, whose son attends Poly and whose daughter hopes to enter in a year. Chambers is worried that state specifications that determine everything from the size of a classroom to the square footage of a school will be applied to Poly and leave the school with less space and specialization than it has now. “It cannot be a general boiler plate used for all the schools,” he said. With the labs, aquaponics and robotics, “You can’t just say we need so much square feet per child.”
Chambers and other alumni and parents worry that one of the best STEM high schools in the nation will be renovated to the minimum specifications determined by the state, rather than allowing a creative assessment of its specialized programs.
While states such as Connecticut have built specialized STEM schools with innovative designs that attract students from around the region, Maryland has a set of rules that limit state funding to a set of standards. Local funds can go to supplement state dollars, but Baltimore City’s government historically has provided far less funding for its school buildings than surrounding counties. It provides about $19 million in capital dollars each year to the school system, while Baltimore County, for instance, gave $200 million, Smith said.
Maryland’s Interagency Commission on School Construction has to abide by a set of rules that were established “decades ago that are designed to ensure equity and the fair distribution of state dollars across the state,” said Alex Donahue, executive director of the IAC. With limited state tax dollars to fund school construction, it would be unfair if the state decided to spend more on one school than another.
That means the state will fund renovations or building of new schools to meet the minimum standards set for schools in terms of square footage or the basic components in a school, including how large a classroom should be, how many seats there should be in the cafeteria and the auditorium, or how large the gym should be.
The current Poly building, in the eyes of the state, is too large. “Poly is a particularly inefficient building,” said Donahue. For instance, its hallways are too wide, and the state doesn’t fund swimming pools. So to do what is called a full modernization under state rules would have required the city to rip off 40,000 square feet of the existing engineering wing, shrink the hallways and reconfigure all the walls in the school so that it became what the state considers an efficient building.
The state argues that reducing the square footage of Poly would create a building that would cost the city less to operate and maintain over the next three decades. “That inefficiency is costing them forever. That has to be factored in and balanced forever,” said Melissa Wilfong, capital projects supervisor for the IAC.
No decisions have been made yet on how Poly and Western will be renovated, but Smith said the city school system isn’t considering lopping off a portion of the engineering wing. The current plan would be to renovate the building without moving interior walls. Like City and Douglass, the two schools would get entirely new guts — new air conditioning and heating systems, roofs, new pipes, new lighting, windows and ceilings. In some cases, the schools have more recent upgrades. Douglass, for instance, has newer windows, and Poly recently got a new roof. Douglass will also get a small brick addition to house Joseph C. Briscoe Academy, a separate day school for students with special needs.
City and Douglass are designated as a locally significant structures on the National Register of Historic Places. But Poly and Western are half a century newer and have aged. School system leaders and parents first explored the idea of constructing new buildings for the two schools on the playing fields and then knocking down the original buildings; that would have involved scraping expensive fields, and the new construction would have resulted in smaller buildings with fewer amenities. The idea was rejected.
Smith said the outside of the schools will be refurbished and look new. Wilfong said there aren’t likely to be a lot of aesthetic upgrades because those would take away from the money that can be spent on the inside.
The question some parents are asking is whether state and local officials could aspire to outfit the schools with the tools and programs that will make them centers of learning for their communities.
“We are going to have this beautiful building, but along with that must come some considerations of what are we preparing” students for, said Mary C. Radcliffe, who is co-chair of the board of directors of the Historic Frederick Douglass High School Alumni Association. Graduates are finding they aren’t prepared for existing jobs, she said. “Our economy requires you have a marketable skill.” She would like to see more career and technology programs.
And McDaniel believes Poly, if rebuilt with leading-edge technology, research laboratories and fabrication labs, should aim to produce students who will be competitive with their peers from around the country. If you start to strengthen the pool of STEM leaders, he said, then “we have this great resource in the Baltimore area that becomes a gem for the entire region” and an economic engine.
Wendy Muher, the parent of one City student and one Poly student, has been part of a grassroots effort by parents and alumni to push against some of the current plans. She said the group “wants to make sure that Poly, Western and the other high schools getting renovations receive a 21st-century renovation and not a cookie cutter version that will not be best in class as soon as 20 years from now.”
McDaniel said state and local leaders should work with parents, alumni and industry leaders to figure out how to provide enough money to fund renovations. Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott’s office did not comment on whether the city would consider increasing its funding for the projects.
They have other concerns as well. City students were told they would attend Thurgood Marshall High School, a closed school in far east Baltimore that is now empty, while City is closed for renovations. When parents protested the distance to commute to the temporary location, Kurt L. Schmoke, president of the University of Baltimore and an alumnus of City, offered empty space at UB. Smith said many details remain to be resolved to make it possible for City students to be housed at UB, but they are working hard at making it happen.
Douglass students will be housed at Garrison Middle School, another large vacant building, 2 1/2 miles from Douglass. Smith said Douglass parents have accepted the plan and now the school system is making renovations to that building so that it can be used as a high school.
Douglass is being paid for under a 10-year, $1 billion 21st Century Schools plan that has completed the renovations or rebuilding of 28 school buildings that house 34 schools. As a result, renovations to the West Baltimore school are scheduled to begin in the fall of 2024. City should start in the fall of 2025. Plans for Poly and Western are still up in the air, but the two-school complex would go last.
Poly parents are now contesting the use of the Northwestern High School building on Fallstaff Road and Park Heights Avenue, five miles from Poly, as its home during the renovations. With only 80 parking spaces, the parking lot does not have space for staff to park, much less students who drive. Chambers and his wife, Bridgette, worry that will mean dropping off their daughter or picking her up will be a logistical nightmare. They are also concerned with safety in the area as students filter out of the school and into the neighborhood.
Smith said that “We’re trying to make it the least disruptive environment as we can for the students and the staff, while knowing that yes, there is a disruption.”
But that may not satisfy some parents like the Chamberses, both Poly alumni and both in the science and engineering fields. When their children were determined to go to Poly, they decided to give up plans to move to Anne Arundel County. But they are now wavering as they consider what their daughter’s four years of high school might be like if Poly is moved to the old Northwestern High School.
Chambers said he and his wife have experienced a carjacking and have been held up at gunpoint in their neighborhood, but those experiences never made them want to move. When the education of their children is at stake, it is another choice.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Frederick Douglass High School's exterior is stone. The school's exterior is brick. The article has been updated to remove the error.