The Green Street Academy story is a testament to what’s possible when a dream held by a few becomes a powerful opportunity shared by the many.
THE BIG IDEA
While serving as board members of the Center for Urban Families, GSA co-founders Larry Rivitz and David Warnock learned from residents in West Baltimore that their children lacked access to the educational resources they needed to prepare them for a rapidly changing job market. In their subsequent research, they identified a significant citywide gap between the college and career preparation programming available in Baltimore City’s high schools and the growth of jobs in the city for which its graduates were unprepared.
To address that gap, Larry and David imagined a new kind of public middle-high school in Baltimore City that would focus on 21st century career education, including the creation of a world-class academic facility that would enable city students to achieve their full potential and graduate with the tools they would need for career success. At the same time, they wanted to develop a community anchor, much like the Center for Urban Families, that could create career opportunities for the families of the school’s students and the wider community in West Baltimore.
“Any of our students can achieve anything, if we stand by them.” – U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings at Green Street Academy’s North Hilton Street Grand Opening, Sept. 2015.
HOW TO START A PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL
In 2009, Larry and David began working with Baltimore City Public Schools to lay out the process that would make the school a reality. They first established a non-profit organization that would serve as the school’s operator. They then joined the superintendent’s school reform initiative by creating a“transformation school” for grades 6-12. Soon after they took over a failed West Baltimore Middle School and absorbed their remaining students while recruiting new ones. The mission of the school was to prepare middle and high school students in Baltimore City for college and careers in the 21st century economy.
To drive the plan, celebrated educator Ed Cozzolino was identified for the role of founding principal. During his tenure at Green Street Academy, Ed established the academic foundation and close-knit culture that still exists today. Prior to opening, Ed selectively recruited his teaching staff, oversaw the many renovations required before welcoming new students, and defined the curriculum and academic standards that have become the hallmark of GSA.
At the school’s opening in September, 2010, over 200 students enrolled in classes taught by veteran teachers along with newly certified staff members from Teach for America and Baltimore City Teaching Residency. In 2012, Ed Cozzolino retired, and Crystal Harden-Lindsey took over to continue the work of scaling the school and leading the staff and students to excellence. By 2014, the number of students had grown to 450, and the school building was stressed to accommodate many more.
GROWING UP AND GROWING OUT
From its inception, Green Street Academy’s founders were determined to create one of Baltimore City’s premier learning institutions. In order to prepare students for a world rapidly adapting to and relying upon technology and practices related to sustainability, the school concentrated on creating academic excellence as well as planning future career pathways for their students. Those pathways included experiential learning, certifications, and internships in construction design and management, conservation and urban agriculture, healthcare, advanced technology, and entrepreneurship, all supported by community partners, like Constellation Exelon, BGE, United Way, U.S. Department of Agriculture, University of Maryland Medical System, and Woodberry Kitchen.
At the same time, GSA also built a positive school culture, supporting underperforming students, mentoring faculty, and building operating systems and community support.
As enrollment exceeded 450 students, it became apparent that the original school location was insufficient in both size and infrastructure to allow GSA to realize its full vision of integrating student learning and community impact. Only by providing state-of-the-art technology and science labs, expanded academic and health services, green space for environmental studies, athletics, and adult workforce training could GSA reach its potential. It also became apparent that GSA would need the financial and programmatic flexibility of charter school status, rather than remain as a more traditionally operated public school, to achieve its ultimate mission.
Green Street Academy began to seek a new home and to create a more independent operating structure.
THE NEW CHARTER SCHOOL
In 2013 the search began for a new building to accommodate the continued growth of Green Street Academy. Requirements for a new building included easy access for walking and service by public transportation, an infrastructure that would allow for expanding curriculum and integrated technology, and space to accommodate programming accessible to all members of the community.
A chance visit to the former Gwynns Falls Park Junior High by the father of a Green Street Academy board member, himself a real estate developer, lead him to explore the exterior of the campus to determine the condition of the building and the state of its occupancy. What he discovered was a prime candidate for GSA’s new campus.
By the time GSA discovered the former Gwynns Falls Park Junior High building, over 30 years had passed since it functioned as a school and badly needed repair. The entire structure was threatened by a failing roof, windows and floors were rotted and broken, and plaster walls were crumbling throughout. While the extent of the renovations would be a substantial challenge, the resulting structure would provide over 145,000 square feet of learning space and 8.75 acres of green space.
Through a combination of financing from Bank of America, The Reinvestment Fund, and the Abell Foundation and support from local foundations and individual contributors, Green Street Academy was able to raise the capital needed to renovate the school and embark on the next leg of its journey.
On January 28, 2015, Larry Rivitz and David Warnock, along school leaders Dan Schochor and Crystal Harden-Lindsey and community supporters, including Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, broke ground on Green Street Academy’s new home and shared their vision for the future with Baltimore. Through its partners Seawall Development, Hord | Coplan | Macht, Southway Builders, and MCN Build, the new GSA was on its way.
A NEW DAY FOR WEST BALTIMORE
After nine months of renovations, Green Street Academy celebrated its Grand Opening on September 21, 2015. The standing-room only event was held in the auditorium and attended by the entire student body and staff, along with many friends, family, and facilitators who had helped to renovate, furnish, finance, and support the new building project.
Gwynns Falls Park Junior High alumni and keynote speaker U.S. Representative Elijah E. Cummings delivered an inspirational speech praising GSA as an exceptional practitioner of the respect, safety, and excitement for learning that all children need and deserve. He recalled his time in the same building many years ago, saying, “It gave me a sense of hope. My dreams began to unfold.” As the audience listened intently, they understood they were experiencing an important moment in the school’s history, one they would never forget.
Congressman Cummings’ underlying message was clear: Green Street Academy is more than a school. It’s a promise made to lift each other up and continue to succeed.
Built in 1925, then the most expensive school in Baltimore City history, Gwynns Falls Park Junior High had experienced a cycle of success followed by a sustained period of decline starting in the 1960s. When the board of Green Street Academy learned about the building, it was owned by Kingdom Life Church, which had acquired it from Baltimore City in the 1980s for use as a church and its K-12 Christian school, but only used currently for its sanctuary and youth ministries. Over the course of many months, GSA gauged the church’s interest not only in selling the building, but also in sharing space with the school for its own activities, an idea embraced by Pastor Michael Philips and his parishioners. Under Pastor Phillips’ stewardship, the congregation did more than simply accept Green Street Academy’s offer; its members became passionate advocates for moving the school to their neighborhood, attended public hearings with Baltimore City Public Schools leadership and expressed their support for Green Street Academy’s charter school application, and impressed upon city leaders the potential impact of the new school on stabilizing their community. In the end, the church’s fellowship proved critical to the process of Green Street Academy achieving charter school approval and resurrecting a long-underutilized school building that once served the surrounding community proudly for decades.