It's early on a September morning during the first week of school, and seventh-grader Deasia Holland waits in the front office to confirm her class schedule, her grandmother, Darlene Sterling, at her side. Deasia is exceptionally stylish, her outfit casual enough for a school day, yet put together in a way—with bangles at her wrists and a bow placed just so—that she looks like she walked off the styled pages of a back-to-school photo shoot. Fashion is clearly something this kid has a knack for.
At her previous school, Deasia says, she liked taking sewing classes. "I had this composition book that I would doodle sketches [of clothes] in," she says.
Fashion will now become a central component of Deasia's scholastic life. She is one of the students enrolled in the inaugural year of the Baltimore Design School (BDS), a city public school dedicated to the study of architecture, graphic design, and fashion. BDS opened this year with 100 sixth graders and 50 seventh graders. By next year, it hopes to welcome its first set of ninth-grade students. By 2013, BDS will move from its temporary home in an existing school facility in Northeast Baltimore to a high-tech space that is currently undergoing a $25-million renovation in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
When Deasia heard that there was a school where she could study fashion, she asked to transfer. "She has always loved to dress up, and the choice to come here was all her own," Sterling says.
It is kids like Deasia who inspired Catherine Pugh, a state senator from Baltimore, to advance the concept for a school of fashion design about four years ago. Pugh had visited New York City's High School of Fashion Industries, one of the country's few fashion high schools, and was struck by the energy, engagement, and intelligence of the kids. "I came back to Baltimore thinking that a fashion school would energize the education community," Pugh says. "I believed the city needed something else along the lines of the School for the Arts."
She approached Fred Lazarus, president of Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), with the idea. "BDS really was her baby," Lazarus says. "She began pushing a fashion school a long time ago, and she did a lot of research. She believed strongly that it was a way of engaging young African-American women."
Lazarus and a team of interested volunteers, like Steve Ziger, founding partner and design principal of Ziger/Snead Architects, joined Pugh and expanded the concept of the new school to include architecture and graphic design. "The success of the Baltimore School for the Arts shows us that there are more creative students than the system can currently support," Ziger says. "The Baltimore Design School complements the BSA's fine arts program with a focus on the design arts."
MICA agreed to serve as a mentor organization, supplying resources and staff expertise for the formation of a program that would meet the requirements of a city school. Last year, the group got the green light from the Baltimore City Public School system (BCPSS), and today BDS is one of the city's 17 transformation schools. Unlike charter schools, which are under the umbrella of the school system but operate independently, a transformation school works more closely with the school system. The BDS board of directors—comprised of area architects, graphic designers, clothiers, educators, and community activists—partnered with BCPSS to get the school off the ground.
"There was something very compelling to me about a transformation school that was going to focus on design arts," says Andrés Alonso, chief executive officer of BCPSS. "There aren't enough options in the arts in the school system, and I felt the concept and the partnership with MICA was going to have a real gravitational pull in the city."
Alonso was right. BDS had no trouble filling, via lottery, the 150 openings available this year. Moving forward, all middle-school openings will continue to be awarded via lottery. At the high school level, students will be admitted based on portfolio reviews, similar to the system of auditions and portfolios used by School for the Arts. Class sizes are small, with no more than 25 students per teacher, and the academic program is rooted in design. "We wanted to create an environment that fosters creativity within a rigorous academic curriculum, in which students recognize the connection between history and fashion, math and architecture, social science and graphic design," Ziger says.
Baltimore now joins cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Miami in embracing design-based public education, as more and more secondary schools implement design-centric curricula. "As a field of study and practice, design is both intellectual and practical," explains Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at MICA. "Students [at BDS] will engage with design's unique thinking processes while learning with their hands and eyes. Designers are makers, doers, and problem solvers. They ask questions, conduct research, and collaborate. These are terrific life skills."
The formal proposal for the school and the design-based curriculum for BDS were developed by consultant Stacey Mancuso, president of Miami-based Small Schools by Design. Mancuso has assisted several design schools around the country. For the last 13 years, she has also been principal of Miami's Design Architecture Senior High (DASH), one of the country's first design high schools and a model for the Baltimore school. More than 95 percent of DASH graduates attend college, and, last year, U.S. News & World Report named it the 15th best public high school in the U.S. The curriculum that Mancuso drafted for BDS has similar goals. "Essentially, our task was to make sure that these students were prepared to get acceptance and scholarship into the finest art and design schools of higher education in the country," says Mancuso.
The innovative curriculum compelled veteran educator Joseph Freed to come out of retirement and run the school as its principal. Freed is no stranger to arts education, having been a founding member and principal of the Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson. "There are students who love the thought of designing, whether it's a building, a dress, a website," Freed says. "BDS is going to provide students a depth of study that other schools don't offer. We will give them a foundation in painting and drawing with an emphasis on design, and we will do it within a culture of collaboration and respect."
Middle school students begin with a primer in the fine arts—drawing, painting, 2-D and 3-D art—while getting an introduction to the fundamentals of design. "There is a lot of focus on fine art, but the things kids are interested in within pop culture and media are not fine art," says Stephanie Cafaro, 2-D design/multimedia teacher at BDS.
In her class on graphic design, Cafaro has students working in teams to design logos for their homeroom classes. "They have the prompt that they are designers who are given the problem to create a class logo," explains Cafaro. "They sketch and brainstorm different ideas, bring those sketches back for small group critiques, then refine the idea and narrow in on a final look." Cafaro uses the assignment to not only encourage creativity, teamwork, and drawing skills, but as a way for students to look critically at branding and the visual environment that surrounds them.
In high school, students will choose one of the design tracks to focus on and will participate in programs—like internships for credit at local design firms—that will embed them in the profession and allow them to actively apply their new skills.
But not everyone who attends BDS will join the design profession. Mancuso estimates that 30 percent will pursue other careers and Steve Ziger says that's okay. "The knowledge and skills they acquire in BDS, such as teamwork, critical evaluation, creative thinking, and verbal and non-verbal communication, will help them in whatever field they choose after graduation," he says.
"Most everything that we interact with has been designed by someone, or, more likely, a team of someones," Ziger adds. "Cars, buildings, appliances, clothing, books, furniture, video games, advertising, and thousands of everyday things all were envisioned and, ultimately, realized by designers in response to a need or problem. Design thinking is simply creative problem solving. . . . Once mastered, the process can apply to designing a pair of shoes, to preparing a meal, to addressing Baltimore's vacant housing problems."
The students currently enrolled at BDS are a mix of those, like Deasia, with a clear interest in design, and others who may not have a set direction. Tom Hyatt's 12-year-old son, Theo, chose to leave his school after sixth grade and make the switch to BDS even though he isn't sure he wants to pursue design. "For Theo, the decision wasn't vocational," says Hyatt. "He wasn't thinking, 'I want to be an architect.' He loves to draw. He is creative in music and language and hand skills, and I think that a school like this will help him thrive."
Hyatt is also the vice president for technology at MICA and is informally helping to advise and outfit the school with technology and software. "It's really exciting to be part of something brand new and innovative and exploratory. For us as a family, for me professionally, and for Theo, we were excited by the idea that we could be pioneers working in this educational environment."
BDS is being touted by Alonso as an innovative model for future city schools, not just for its curricular vision, but also for the way in which the school's new facility was financed. Within two years, BDS will move into the former Lebow building on Oliver Street in Station North, just a stone's throw from MICA. Seawall Development Corporation, a firm that specializes in restoring abandoned historic buildings to support grassroots renewal, is developing the site, which sat vacant for decades.
"Our original idea was artist space, but we got a call from Dr. Alonso and Fred [Lazarus] and Senator Pugh asking if we would consider changing the plan and making it into a state-of-the-art school," says Thibault Manekin, cofounder of Seawall.
Seawall partnered with the BDS board and the BCPSS board to help the project earn historic tax credits and to keep costs low for a high-tech, energy-efficient school, to be designed by Ziger/Snead. BCPSS will lease the building at an affordable rate and will eventually earn ownership of the building, thus gaining a $25 million facility over time rather than having to pay such a large sum up front.
With its proximity to MICA and the cultural assets of Station North, and with the commitment of local design firms and businesses to engage in internships and volunteering, the current and future BDS students will likely become a visible part of the city's arts and design community. There is the potential to cultivate the next generation of entrepreneurial designers right here in Baltimore. Lupton, for one, hopes to see some graduates stick around. "We hope to see some of these kids apply to MICA ," she says. "We anticipate building strong relationships between the two schools, finding opportunities to interact that will benefit our students as well as theirs."
For now, there are 150 middle schoolers, their parents, and the 12 faculty members heading full steam into this new educational experiment. Two days after the school opened, Freed already has evidence that the school is on the right track. Tacked to his wall are gifts from his students, intricate drawings and carefree sketches, including one with the bold letters, "I love BDS!"