Baltimore Design School Hopes to Keep More Students in Classroom

Special to Capital News Service=

BALTIMORE - Avion Tasker's homework used to be math and science and English. Now it includes still-life drawing, painting and making her own clothes.

Tasker is a seventh-grader and a member of the founding class at the Baltimore Design School.

"I want to be a fashion or graphic designer," Tasker said. "I want to do the whole high school, college, everything....I want to have my own big store, hopefully in the mall."

City school officials opened the design school last fall in an effort to keep a segment of Baltimore students interested in school. Baltimore follows cities including Boston, New York, Miami and Oakland, Calif., all of which have opened design schools to try to keep teenagers in the classroom.

Sixth- and seventh-graders enrolled this school year. By 2016, the school will have grades seven through 12.

State Sen. Catherine Pugh, of Baltimore, proposed the idea. "I'm trying to figure out what we need to do in our city to keep our students more engaged. If we nurture their talents, they can pursue careers that they want," Pugh said.

Baltimore has long had high drop-out rates -- meaning many young people leave school without skills to find good jobs.

Of the city school students who began ninth grade in the fall of 2007, about 65 percent graduated after four years, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. About 22 percent are still enrolled in school, while 13 percent of students dropped out.

Pugh visited a design high school in New York City, where "the excitement in the school was overwhelming." She came home with an idea of opening a fashion design school for girls.

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But after talking with Fred Lazarus, the president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, they decided to include boys and to broaden the definition of design.

"Everything has some sense of design to it" -- chairs, clothes, computer programs. "People don't think, 'Somebody designed that chair, that door frame, that book cover,' but that is design," Pugh said.

The school opened in the old Winston Middle School in Northeast Baltimore. The curriculum will integrate graphic, fashion and architecture design classes into the standard Maryland public schools academic curriculum.

By the fall of 2014, the school plans to relocate to the Station North Arts District, and students will join the growing population of artists living and working in the area.

Design school students will intern at design firms in the city, collaborate with MICA students and take advantage of the performances and galleries in Station North.

Many of the design school faculty are MICA alumni.

Because the program is new, Baltimore looked to Miami for help in creating the curriculum. "There are no textbooks, materials for design education," Lazarus said.

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Students are admitted to the school through a lottery system, and high school applicants must also submit a portfolio.

To graduate, students at the design school will be required to take the same state assessment tests as students throughout Maryland public schools and fulfill all of Maryland's graduation requirements.

"It is expected that many will also take the Advanced Placement exam in design or studio art," said Karen Carroll, the dean of the Center for Art Education at MICA, and the chair of the education committee that reviewed and approved the design school curriculum .

In Miami, she said, students, "have been very successful in winning scholarships for their college preparation, and we hope for the same." Lazarus expects that by the time the sixth- graders who started this fall finish high school, MICA will offer a major in fashion design for interested design school students to pursue.

"Our school feels like a community," said Shannon Canal, an English teacher at the design school. "I want our school to become an avenue that will help students break the cycles of poverty, drug use, teenage pregnancy, violence. I want our school to become the place where students want to be."

Students gather in the office, a glass bubble at the front of the school with the words "Design Changes Lives" painted in orange on the clear glass walls.

One girl has half her hair dyed pink. Another is wearing a striped tie. Others have worn clothes that they have made themselves to school, like pleated skirts and decorated book bags, sometimes clashing with the bright orange and blue paint on the walls.

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The school does not require students wear uniforms. In fact, some students design and sew clothes to wear to school.

Not everyone plans a career in fashion, however. Jonathan Neeham, 11 years old, is a sixth-grader interested in comic books. "When I grow up, I want to work at Marvel Studios," he said.

Tyre Brown was one of the only other boys hanging out in the office after school. He was picking glitter and glue off of his hands from an earlier design class.

The 12-year-old sixth-grader likes his computer design class, but when he grows up, "I want to drive MTA buses," he said.

And that is all right, according to Joseph Freed, the design school principal. "We want them to know the options and possibilities they have through both design and academics," he said.

The design schools' future home, in the former Lebow Clothing Company factory at Oliver and Barclay streets in Station North, is scheduled to be ready for the start of the 2014 school year.

When the firm designing the building, Ziger/Snead, surveyed the old factory, it found old sewing machines, mannequins and coats. It was "like they left and just never came back the next day," said Sukanya Walsh, a Ziger/Snead designer.

Before it was used to make clothes, the building housed Crown Cork & Seal, said Katherine LePage, another designer. The firm is working with the Maryland Historical Trust to preserve as much as the old building as possible.

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The school will have 18-foot ceilings with floor-to-ceiling windows, LePage said. The library will include a two-story study lounge, and the cafeteria will double as a runway, which will flow through the library during student fashion shows.

Each incoming class will reshape the school. The internet cafe in the computer lab will be left for the students to re-design each year, Walsh said. And what used to be the building's old loading dock will be transformed into an exterior stage, with the flexibility to move seating around and hold performances of any kind, she added.

The community will also have access to the gym, art supply store, woodworking shop and fabric dyeing space in the basement of the school, LePage said.

The president emeritus of the New Greenmount West Community Association, Abu Moulta Ali, said the community looks forward to use the added gallery and performance spaces.

A design school, very close to MICA, "will create a community of artists from junior high through college, that can intermingle and create a much more robust art scene," Ali said.