It’s extraordinarily rare to meet a team with a vision for creating an entirely new school from scratch, let alone a group who wants to do it in one of the most historically overlooked areas of Baltimore City. But in the Green Street Academy team, we met a group who had already executed on a vision for an innovative educational program focused on rigorous career training and strong academics. When we crossed paths, they were looking for a building to call their own. Green Street Academy was founded as a public charter school in 2009 and originally served 200 students in sixth and seventh grades. Their goal was to provide strong academics along with exposure to employment opportunities, especially in the green economy – mainly environmental science, urban agriculture, healthcare, and construction design and management. The founders, David Warnock and Larry Rivitz, were both serving on the board of directors for the Center for Urban Families (CFUF) and heard from the community there was a lack of high-quality education options in CFUF’s surrounding areas. The school started out sharing space in a vacant West Baltimore building but soon felt like a building of their own was needed to solidify the school’s unique culture and mission. As educators, their expertise wasn’t in real estate, and so they asked us to come alongside them to find, acquire, finance, design, and build their dream school. Together, we found the former Gwynns Falls Park Junior High School at 125 N Hilton St. in West Baltimore, not far from their first building. Built in 1925, the 130,000-square-foot structure was at the time, the most expensive school structure built in Baltimore City history and educated thousands of students. But it had been decommissioned and sat mostly vacant for more than 20 years; when we came across it, the building was far from being operable for a 21st-century school. Yet, we saw immense possibility, and we couldn’t wait to help Green Street to realize it all. An investment of $23 million transformed the forgotten school into state-of-the-art classrooms for more than 875 students in grades six to twelve, utilized 8.75 acres of green space for all kinds of urban agriculture – like greenhouses, chicken coops, and a fish farm, – and includes community staples like a food pantry and adult education spaces. Today, more than 75 percent of the student body lives within walking distance and the school is poised for another expansion, adding grades K-5. Job well done, GSA team.
This building is a pillar in the community. We’re serving hot food, doing a food pantry, and we even offer adult education like GED classes. Most importantly, there are opportunities for families to really engage with their children in the educational process, instead of just being told what the process is like, they can participate in it.
The repurposing of this almost 100-year-old building into a LEED Platinum, state-of-the-art school fits right in with the mission of Green Street Academy. The school truly led by example.
Larry Rivitz has been an advocate and enabler of public education for his entire career. Through extensive listening to the surrounding community while serving on the Center for Urban Families board in 2010 with David Warnock, the two decided to start Green Street Academy. The rest, they say, is history - and all of Baltimore is better for it.
So how did the idea for Green Street Academy come about?
Well, at the time, I was serving on the Center for Urban Families (CFUF) board and was really observing the challenges that the surrounding community faced. One of the primary issues was lack of access to quality public education. I had been involved in education-centered nonprofits and entrepreneurial projects for years and have always been a big supporter of public education. Along with my fellow CFUF board member, David Warnock, we started to think about starting a school focused on career training. At the time, Baltimore City Public Schools had a “transformation school” model that was meant to prevent students from dropping out after eighth grade by doing schools with grades 6-12. We heard about that and after talking with the community, decided to try starting a sixth to seventh grade school, with the goal of eventually expanding it up to twelfth grade.
And from the beginning, the school was focused on career training, particularly in the green economy, right?
We were really honed in on career preparation of any type, and also wanted to be relevant to what we saw happening with the growth of green economy. So now we have classes in all sorts of relevant career fields - like urban agriculture, healthcare, and environmental science.
You didn’t start out in the building at 125 N Hilton St.; tell us about where the school was originally located and why you started looking to relocate?
When we started in 2010 with 200 students between two grades, we were lucky enough to share space with another school at a vacant Baltimore City Public School. For the first few years, we were focused on growing and adding grades to the school. Then, we realized that a building of our own was needed to really further our mission, and so we started working with Seawall to help find the building, and then eventually redevelop it.
Tell us about finding the former Gwynn Falls Park Junior High School at 125 N Hilton St.; what was your first impression of the school and the potential of it housing Green Street Academy?
Wow. When we first came across that building, it was sort of by accident. It was old and mostly abandoned, with just a church, the Kingdom Life Church, using its auditorium for their weekly services. It had once been this junior high that thousands of Baltimore seventh and eighth graders went to, but it had been unused for so long. We didn’t expect to take over a building of that size, but it was in the neighborhood where many of our kids and families lived, and it sat on this rich environmental site that we saw the potential in all of our urban agriculture programs. So we talked with Kingdom Life Church and the community and decided to try to raise the money to make this building Green Street Academy’s home.
How was it working with Seawall on the project and what were you able to do in the renovations to the building to make it the right home for Green Street?
We knew Seawall from their work on the Baltimore Design School and needed to work with someone to transform 100,000 square feet of this huge building into classrooms and common space for the school. We also worked with Hord Coplan Macht as the architects, and together, we did an incredible renovation to the school. We really wanted to create this new model for urban career education, and this building allowed us to make it a reality.
So what’s next for Green Street Academy and your building on Hilton St.?
Well, we are now a sixth to twelfth grade school and have an amazing team of educators and administrators. We’re focused on seeing if we can expand to be a full K-12 school, and will need to do further renovations to the building if so. We have 40,000 square feet left that we could update in the building, and we would love to see it become a hub within the school for further career counseling, technical training, and internship matching.