Schools Find Open Spaces Allow Little Breathing Room

Replacing Class Walls Hard On County's Purses

October 25, 1990|By Dianne Williams Hayes | Dianne Williams Hayes,Staff writer

The sound of his teacher's voice reading a book to some of his classmates a few feet away doesn't bother 10-year-old Scott Seivert as he works independently, but occasionally he is distracted by activities in the class about 6 feet behind him at Folger McKinsey Elementary in Severna Park.

"Sometimes they get a little noisy," Seivert said of the neighboring class. "But it doesn't really bother me."

But increasingly, parents and county school board members say the open space concept, adopted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was an instructional fad that will cost the county more than $5 million to correct.

Board member Patricia Huecker said her concerns were only as a parent at the time the decision was made to follow the national trend toward building classrooms without walls. In the open configuration, each grade level is grouped in a pod arrangement, separated only by portable chalkboards, bookshelves and partitions.

"The idea behind it was that children lived in an environment of multi-stimuli," Huecker said. "It was thought that they had to be able to function in the world at large with all types of stimuli. The real idea involved having a very large space for the classroom setting and satellite areas where students could go and work with other teacher specialists.

"Nothing else that went along with the concept came along with the plan in this county except taking down walls. We didn't have the teachers to work in small groups."

She refers to the county's makeshift attempt to extend the concept to older buildings with tighter space as "a disaster".

"The only open space is where the wall used to be," Huecker said. "We had a second-grade child sitting 12 inches from a third-grade child. That was inane. The students didn't have movement from area to area, and teachers immediately used everything they could find to section off the areas."

Although the board sets aside $100,000 it receives from the county each year toward closing those open spaces, it is not enough, Huecker said.

Requests by the school board to the county for $500,000 each year to address the situation have gone largely unanswered, Huecker said.

The board uses $100,000 it receives from the county each year, but it is not enough to address the situation, Huecker said.

George Hatch, supervisor of capital projects development for the school system, said it will be a very long time before all 27 of the county's elementary schools and 14 middle and high schools in need of walls will have them.

Alterations to the school would be done as part of the $3.5 million renovation project. Deale Elementary in South County is seventh on the list for $2.7 million renovations, with plans to replace walls that had been knocked down in the small school.

"Deale Elementary was totally devastated by the idiotic idea of taking down walls," Huecker said. "They have plywood board where doors used to be."

Folger McKinsey Elementary, in Severna Park, is also on the long list for walls, even though students there score well on academic achievement tests.

Board member Jo Ann Tollenger told a small group of parents last spring that she would support repairing schools first where learning may be affected by the open classrooms.

Folger McKinsey principal Linda Unklesbee said that there may be some benefit to the open space configuration, which affects students in grades three through six at Folger.

"It allows for a cohesive program, and allows teachers to spread out," Unklesbee said. "I'm aware of parent concerns, and support their efforts to get walls.

"It's like the pendulum swinging back and forth. People liked it 20 years ago."

"We have a lot of electrical and heating ventilation work to be done, and fire codes that have to be met," Hatch said. "It's not just a matter of putting up walls.

"I know our Board of Education has taken the position of having walls in classrooms in all of our new schools and in the ones under design and constuction. We have a long waiting list."

The process is also delayed because most work has to be done during the summer when students aren't in school.

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