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New high school aims to help students design their future

State Senator Catherine Pugh - Arianne Teeple
State Senator Catherine Pugh - Arianne Teeple

Miami has one. Detroit has one. And after much planning, preparation and negotiation, Baltimore is about to get one, too.

For the better part of 10 years, State Sen. Catherine Pugh (D) has been planning for a school that would be the first of its kind in Maryland. A lifelong devotee of fashion design, Pugh knew there was a particular group of kids in Baltimore who were slipping through the cracks; those gifted in the visual arts who weren't interested the fine arts format. She envisioned a school that would give students the skills they needed to pursue careers in fashion, architecture and design in business. The school was not an "art for performance's sake" institution, but one providing the tools for entrepreneurial success. With her vision clear, Pugh got to work.

"I've seen the energy at other arts schools. And fashion and architecture go beyond what's on your body or in a building. From clothing to computer programs to an automobile, there's a facet of design in everything we touch today. So I took the initiative."

In August 2008 at a press conference for Baltimore Fashion week, Pugh announced that a high school geared towards students interested in design was in the planning stages. In 2009, the school's advisory board meetings began. Partnerships were initiated and discussions with an educational consultant began. By January 12, 2010, The Fashion Architecture and Basic Design School (FAD) received formal approval from the Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) for an August, 2011 open date.

Creating the pattern

The school has educators and design professionals in the City electrified.

"We've really put together something that will make Baltimore sit up and take notice. FAD will give credence to the talent that exists in the City and allow these kids to do what they were born to do," Pugh says.

Pugh sent Sharan Nixon, president of Baltimore Fashion Week, a letter shortly after her 2008 press conference asking her to be a part of the project. For someone so committed to fashion as a business as Nixon, the project was perfect. So perfect, in fact, that she thought she was being punked. "I called her chief of staff and asked, 'Is this for real?'The goal of tapping into the design talent of people in the inner city, some of whom are over-looked, and providing them an outlet for their gifts was inspiring to me."

Other pros in the fashion, design and architecture were tapped to round out an impressive advisory board that includes Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA); Ella Pritsker, director of the Maryland Academy of Couture Arts; and Baltimore fashion icon and producer, Travis Winkey.

At first blush, the Baltimore School for the Arts might make FAD seem redundant. But, according to Nixon and Lazarus, the two institutions are ultimately designed to complement -- not compete with -- one another.

Laura Weeldreyer, deputy chief of staff for BCPS concurs. FAD's emphasis isn't performing arts, but applied arts those useful in the application of a trade like fashion merchandising or graphic design, she explains. The high school will be a way to bring fledgling design efforts to the city in the way the Baltimore School for the Arts has done for performers. Weeldreyer also says that Leslie Shepard, director of Baltimore School for the Arts has been unequivocally supportive of the project and will be counseling students as to whether her school or FAD is right for them as they continue in their artistic pursuits.

"From our perspective, there's very little design taught at the pre-college level in [Baltimore] schools. We want FAD to be a laboratory for the development of curriculum for design programs. And we want to provide a new educational opportunity for Baltimore City youth," Lazarus says.

Such an opportunity particularly interests MICA brass, as 95 percent of their students come from schools outside the Baltimore area, including a large concentration from Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH). FAD seems perfectly primed to change that.

Weedlreyer was particularly energized by MICA's involvement with FAD "They are a nationally recognized art institution, and the thought of their partnership with FAD, their linking public school system kids to higher education was exciting. We've been talking to them for years. Fred [Lazarus] is phenomenal. They deserve kudos for their involvement with this project."

It's all about timing

Pugh's vision is about to reach its fruition at a critical juncture. The success of New York's High School of Fashion Industries, Detroit's Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies (SCS), and Miami's DASH offered an educational footprint into which the board was able to step. Even more fortuitously, the consultant firm who worked with the schools in Detroit and Miami, Small Schools By Design, Inc., offered to work with Pugh and the advisory board in getting FAD up and running.

According to Lazarus, the City is primed for FAD: "There's been a growing strength of and interest in the design community in Baltimore in the past five years everything from architecture to computer games, to fashion and technology. Fashion design is much more decentralized, for example. Senator Pugh felt strongly that the design fields were a strong interest area for young African-American students and we were losing a tremendous opportunity to motivate kids and provide educational opportunities for them."

For BCPS, the approval was a relatively easy one. "They already had momentum, and it was of benefit to give them the green light so they could continue to gather resources and interest. It got people off the fence," says Weeldryer.

While there are schools in Baltimore City that have been granted faster approval than FAD, Pugh says she was "pleased with the process because it gave us an opportunity to think about all the components involved in putting together a school of this quality."

The school's model also helped school officials give it a thumbs up. "The school is based on the DASH. school, one that's been very successful, so there was less risk involved in this particular thematic model," Weeldreyer says.

Just how successful is DASH? U.S. News and World Report recently ranked it the 15th best high school in the country for the second consecutive year. "Baltimore was behind on the design scene, and there are careers to be had in this industry," she adds.

Dreaming up the future

The FAD school will be a "transformation school" one of 13 of its kind in the City that are part of an initiative begun by City Schools CEO Andres Alonso over two years ago. It's anticipated that Baltimore City will open up to 24 of the specialized schools over the next four years.

They will offer students in grades 6 to 12 a unique opportunity in a charter school/public school hybrid that offers college prep and high quality, innovative curriculum all in one fell swoop. Each school will have a specific theme and admit students through a lottery.

These unique institutions are also operated by independent education entities. In FAD's case, the operator is Fashion, Architecture and Basic Design School, Inc. (S.D.A.T. Department ID# D13587654), which was incorporated last month. It will work in tandem with BCPS and adhere to all city, state and federal educational regulations.

But according to Weeldreyer, FAD will be given autonomy in four major areas: budget, governance, staffing and instructional basics. She notes, "FAD has to adhere to the state assessment program requirements, and their responsibilities are ultimately the same as other Baltimore City schools, but they will have their own way of getting there." The school system will provide a guiding role, but primary management and support for FAD will come from its operator.

Weeldreyer also says there's an added benefit to schools like FAD, those transformation schools with high levels of specialty: they are pulling in institutional partners that might not otherwise be involved with school reform. This sets Baltimore up for the synergy of students attending these thematic schools, and ultimately going on to careers represented by the local business that have been involved in those schools from the very beginning.

It's exactly the win-win Pugh had in mind.

Setting the foundation

Organizers expect FAD will to grow organically, beginning with a 6th grade, adding a grade per year until the school reaches a full capacity of 600 students. The school will be funded through the City Schools Fair Student Funding initiative, a weighted per-pupil model that will allot $550,000 for FAD with $50,000 accessible in the first year, and $250,000 doled out in each of the subsequent two years. FAD may at any point raise additional private funding.

Locations for the school are currently being investigated, with a strong preference for the Station North area already home to MICA and a concentration of Baltimore's creative class. While a formal marketing push has yet to be undertaken, MICA's graduate students are lending their talent toward the development of a logo for the school. According to Lazarus, the order of priority now is staffing, fundraising (to begin in earnest this fall) and student recruitment.

Lazarus notes that the search for a principal will begin in late summer of this year.

While it has yet to be developed, Lazarus makes clear that a few things will be apparent in the curriculum, beginning with a strong emphasis on computer literacy in all grades. In 10th grade, sophomores will have a chance to choose their particular specialty, and by senior year, courses will be heavily project and internship-based.

Weeldreyer is hoping to get specs FAD's principal, instructors and curriculum by February of 2011.

Pugh is looking toward the future. "In five years' time, we'll be seeing our first group of students heading off to colleges or into related industries. We're creating a beacon of hope in our city, showcasing the talent we have and what those talented students are able to achieve through a strong educational foundation."

Sharan Nixon points out that FAD will work to ensure the longevity of design in the City and beyond, starting with the kids who finally have a platform for their skills, and those who are ultimately emboldened to follow in their creative footsteps.

As she says with a smile, "Senator Pugh has it all mapped out."

Got a comment? Let us know what you think about this article on Twitter and Facebook or send us an email! Or, read more about what's going on in education in Baltimore.

Sarah Perry is an 11-year native of the Baltimore area and has been writing for about that long. Her work has appeared in publications across the country. She's also a lawyer, but don't hold that against her.

Senator Catherine Pugh - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Sharan Nixon, President & CEO, Baltimore Fashion Week - Photo by Arianne Teeple
MICA President Fred Lazarus in the College's galleries - Photo courtesy of Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)
Ella Pritsker, Founder/ Director, Maryland Academy of Couture Arts - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Clothes designed by F.L.E.X. - Photo provided by AW Creative Group
Clothes designed by Kayla Couture - Photo provided by AW Creative Group

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