Dundalk's high school deteriorated during the past two decades just as the community's once-bustling steel mill declined. From the school's top floor, you could see the Key Bridge and the detritus of a shuttered industrial past.
Inside, the school mirrored the dilapidation. The windows had clouded over, no air conditioning meant classroom temperatures would soar, and the roof leaked so badly that large garbage cans were strategically placed during storms to catch water dripping through the ceiling.
Dundalk High's new building, which opened this fall, might have ignored the past, but instead it was built to honor it, and to give students an inspiring space to continue academic gains made over the past five years.
The new school is the culmination of work begun five years ago when a new principal was charged with overhauling the school — improving its instruction and helping a design team imagine a new building for Dundalk and the equally run-down Sollers Point Technical School.
"Our goal has been to go out and make the kids proud to be in the Dundalk community," said PTA president Maxine Erickson, who graduated from Dundalk, as did her relatives and children.
Students at the revamped Dundalk High have made dramatic academic progress since 2008 — the graduation rate has risen from 62 percent to a projected 74.5 percent in 2013. During the same period, the student suspension rate each year has declined from 27 percent to 12 percent.
The new building, with its comfortable seats and desks, natural light flooding the classrooms and new white boards that display lessons, is expected to aid in continued academic improvement at the school.
"It is a much more serious learning environment," said 10th-grader Jeffrey Belt, 15. "It's a lot easier to learn in the classrooms."
For years, Bethlehem Steel and General Motors provided good jobs to those who lived in Dundalk and Turners Station. Before racial integration, Dundalk was the school for white students and Sollers for blacks. Displays around the school are an attempt to make students feel proud of the heritage of both the black and white communities.
In the lobby, museum cases showcase memorabilia, including old varsity jackets, and an old-fashioned water fountain has been installed. The fountain stood for 65 years outside Sollers — once an all-black school — and both blacks and whites were allowed to drink from it even during the years of segregation.
Even the wider halls have a purpose: Dundalk's 1,300 students and Sollers' 500 students aren't walking elbow-to-elbow through the corridors. The added space, administrators say, can help prevent rowdy behavior and fighting.
And the cafeteria — a place in many high schools where you must shout to be heard above the screeching of chair legs and talking — is quiet. The seats are attached to round tables and can't be moved.
Jordan Robinson, a ninth-grader, called his school "amazing." And, he said, "I was surprised when there were no fights."
In designing the new building, the architects had the unusual task of combining two schools under one roof while allowing them to remain independent.
Dundalk is a comprehensive high school while Sollers Point is a magnet technical school with programs in such areas as cyber security, culinary arts and nursing. Students attend Sollers from around Baltimore County in the morning for their technical classes and then go back to their neighborhood high schools for academic instruction in the afternoon.
"This idea of two schools coming together was a very interesting design problem to solve. How do we give them their own identity but bring them together as a community of schools?" said Terry Squyres, of GWWO Architects of Baltimore, which designed the new school.
The $101 million Dundalk High and Sollers Point Technical School looks like two new high schools with different exteriors — one brick and one glass — connected by joint spaces, such as the cafeteria and gym that are used by both student bodies. The media center for both schools is in a three-story atrium.
Thanks to the new building and a stable faculty, Dundalk Principal Tom Shouldice expects a leap in academic achievement this year. He and his staff were involved in every step of the design and building process, and the principal was allowed to help shape the way the building looks and operates.
"We are going in to the new school with a highly trained faculty. I think the school is poised to move forward," Shouldice said.
Michael Weglein, the principal of Sollers, said the new facility will allow his programs to flourish, including one for the culinary arts, which, thanks to the upgrade, has professional-grade kitchen equipment for students to use.
Students walking the hallways can't ignore the school's past. Dozens of poster-size photographs of prominent community leaders are mounted on panels inscribed with their accomplishments. On one wall is Dunbar Brooks, an African-American who grew up in the area and went on to be president of the Baltimore County and state school boards.
Squyres said that, in researching the design, she could not find another school in the country that has incorporated a community's history into a new school building in this way. As students read the stories of what their predecessors achieved, she believes they may be inspired to achieve as well.
Erickson, the PTA president, said she expects the new building to make a difference even after several years of academic improvement.
"This is so bright and open. It kind of commands respect," she said. "It seems that more is expected of them now that they have something new and nice."
She said she hopes the new school will stand as a symbol for a comeback in her community. Already there are signs of revival, she said, along the shopping areas in Dundalk. Community events are bringing out more neighbors. Like the school, the traditionally black neighborhoods of Turners Station and Dundalk have become slightly more integrated.
When Shouldice took over as principal five years ago, the school was labeled failing after years of poor performance. Shouldice got rid of 72 percent of the faculty over two years, initiated programs to improve attendance and ramped up academic rigor — all in a tired, old building. It's hard to turn around schools, and even as much as it has been tried in the past decade, the success rate is low.
But this turnaround has academic measures from Advanced Placement to High School Assessments to support it. The school logged those achievements even as it saw an increasing number of poor students and those designated for special education.
Dundalk is rising above its old reputation, according to ninth-grader Erika Davis, who started high school just a few weeks ago.
"I expected the school to be kind of ghetto," she said, "but it is nice."