For decades, visitors arriving at Benjamin Franklin High School at Masonville Cove have been greeted by a brick wall. And for years, city school leaders said Tuesday, that has sent the wrong message to the Curtis Bay neighborhood, a struggling area whose community high school has long fought to stem its dropout rate.
In a celebration Tuesday, past and present Benjamin Franklin students removed the first brick from the walled-over entrance of the school's original building, which next year will house a newly constructed wing of administrative and community offices.
"For me, symbolically, if you have to come in through the back door, that means you're ashamed to go to the school," said Christopher Battaglia, who will become principal next year.
It was not clear when the entrance was bricked over, but the building has continued to be used for classroom space, including a science lab, which will be moved into the main part of the school. Battaglia said the new building, which will retain its historic 1926 facade, would be "intentionally welcoming."
In a rally outside the school, the American Civil Liberties Union joined students and school leaders to celebrate the revitalization of Benjamin Franklin, which will also receive new computer and technology centers and a renovated media center next year.
The ACLU has been a vocal critic of the Baltimore school system's dilapidated infrastructure, which it estimates would take $2.8 billion to fix.
"We're really glad to see this investment," said Frank Patinella, education advocate for the ACLU. "Students and teachers are at a disadvantage in this city."
The renovations occur as the long-failing school is undergoing an internal overhaul next year, including replacing all or most of its staff and changing the curriculum to focus on science and internships.
"I'm very grateful for the turnaround. … It means a new opportunity for me that I haven't had," said Angel Mendoza, who will be a senior at Benjamin Franklin next year. "We can be as good as City or Poly."
Many at Tuesday's gathering said the renovations will set a new tone for the school and the Curtis Bay community.
"This is a community that has been neglected for years," said Rosa Carmon, Benjamin Franklin's departing principal. She said the poor condition of the school and the neighborhood have deterred strong students and teachers from joining the school community.
Carmon said she believes that the new program and curriculum will take the school "into the future."
"Sometimes people come and see the conditions of everything and say, 'Is this a place I want to be?'" Carmon said. "Now they will have an attraction."