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Hopkins hopes to revive Baltimore neighborhood

Friday - 2/1/2013, 10:58am  ET

The Washington Post

BALTIMORE - The renowned Johns Hopkins University medical campus looms over East Baltimore like a fortress on a hill. On its northern edge lies a humble neighborhood of rowhouses weathered by decades of crime, poverty and decay.

The research powerhouse in health sciences was long seen as indifferent to the social ills festering on its doorstep, or as powerless to cure them. That view echoes in cities across the country where universities thrive next to slums.

But Hopkins is seeking to engineer the revival of a huge swath of East Baltimore through an 88-acre redevelopment project that includes taking over a struggling public school. It is unusual for an elite university to dive so deeply into urban education and redevelopment at the same time.

The elementary and middle school, which Hopkins operates and subsidizes, is scheduled to move from its temporary neighborhood location into a nearby, newly constructed campus this year a couple blocks from the medical complex, where it will reboot under the university's brand name.

The hope here is that the Henderson-Hopkins School will lure working-class families to a place that once drove them away. The university has an inherent self-interest: Safety and prosperity on its borders will make the medical campus more attractive for students and faculty.

"They knew that a school was one of the things this neighborhood needs," said Betty Carlos, 66, whose daughter Gift is in third grade at the school and grandson Kyrin is in fourth grade. "You can't ask people to move into these $200,000 houses and not have a good school."

Carlos, a lifelong resident of East Baltimore, said she was angry when forced out of her home a few years ago to make way for the redevelopment, which has been under way now for a decade. That friction still echoes here from time to time when skeptics ask exactly how much the project has helped the community. Officials say that they have tracked and aided hundreds of displaced families and that the school will give their children enrollment priority.

Carlos said she and her daughter Michelle, a cook at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, are thinking of buying a house in the redevelopment zone. She said Hopkins won't let the school fail. "They'll do everything they can to not be shamed."

For generations, colleges have worked with public schools to facilitate teacher training and education research. But in recent times, relatively few major universities have invested their brand in a modern urban school to the extent Hopkins has. Obstacles to success are high, and the task can be hard to square with a university's mission.

The University of Pennsylvania gave its name and financial support to an acclaimed public school known as Penn Alexander that in the past decade has helped rejuvenate west Philadelphia. Stanford University oversees a charter high school in East Palo Alto, Calif., but was forced to shut down a companion elementary school in 2010 amid debate about its performance.

"It's risky," acknowledged Susan H. Fuhrman, president of Teachers College at Columbia University, which recently put its name on a New York public school. "With heightened accountability, you are on the line for student achievement. But if every university in an urban setting did this, it would be a huge boost. We're neighbors, and we have an obligation."

Nationwide, the Center for Education Reform counts about 50 charter schools with close university partnerships.

In the Washington region, Howard University launched the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, a charter school, on its Northwest Washington campus in 2005. The University of Maryland is involved with a charter school to open in College Park in August. George Mason University plans to open a small school-within-a-school _ the Patriot Innovation Academy _ in September at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax County. George Washington University has close ties with School Without Walls, a selective D.C. public high school on its Foggy Bottom campus, although it does not run it.

Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels, in an interview on the main campus in north Baltimore, said the university must shoulder more responsibility for the welfare of a city of 619,000 that has been its home since 1876.

A former provost at U-Penn, Daniels cites the Ivy League university's work in rebuilding west Philadelphia as a model. He has pushed Hopkins to deepen its engagement with East Baltimore since he arrived here in 2009. "We've really elevated it to a higher level," he said. "There was a perception that we weren't doing all that we could be doing."

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