Walls mark the end of school's open-space experiment Partitions return to favor at Belle Grove Elementary

July 27, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

An era is ending at Belle Grove Elementary School. You can tell by the wallboard and insulation stacked in the hallway.

Nearly 20 years after the walls dividing 12 classrooms came down, introducing a limited version of the open-space school, the walls are going back up. The experiment that came from California via then-superintendent Edward J. Anderson is being undone.

"I would say that the open space concept is not for every child," said Belle Grove Principal Gloria Reid. "Some children suffer from attention deficit. Some kids can concentrate, some can't."

She stood in a hot classroom as school department maintenance workers stuffed insulation between steel studs. The stationary partition between two classrooms will replace a makeshift divider of bulletin boards and blackboards, which never quite kept one classroom's noise from bleeding into the other, Ms. Reid said.

Noise would drift from room to room, and with it, the attention of many students, Ms. Reid said. After parents and teachers complained about it year after year, the school decided to replace the walls. The job will cost $7,000, said Chuck Cummings, a school department maintenance planner.

Former Belle Grove Principal Gregory Metrinko, now principal at Oakwood Elementary, said the open environment was designed to "create the idea of team teaching, sharing materials." Also, he said, it was cheaper to build schools with fewer interior walls.

Pat Renes, president of the Belle Grove Parent-Teachers Association, said she has mixed emotions about the replacement of the walls. One the one hand, it will make it easier for students to concentrate on what their teacher is saying; on the other, "open space is nice looking, the kids don't feel hemmed in."

The PTA took no official position on whether to replace the walls.

Sharon Doyle, principal of Linthicum Elementary, was a teacher at Belle Grove when the walls came down in 1973. She said, "I enjoyed the change."

As a new teacher at the time, the open classroom gave her the opportunity to learn from the more experienced teacher in the next room.

"You're always going to have pros and cons," said Ms. Doyle. "I can't remember anyone protesting" the change.

In fact, the principal at the time, Paula Long, did fight the change, but the will of Mr. Anderson prevailed, said Ellen Phebus, who has been Belle Grove secretary for 24 years.

Now, 20 years later, several county schools are going back to the traditional classroom, including Folger McKinsey Elementary in Severna Park and Woodside Elementary in Glen Burnie.

County school department official Ken Nichols said that at the County Council's request, the school department is preparing a report on which of the county's 110 schools have open space, which do not, and how much it would cost to put up stationary walls in all of them.

"It's got to be an astronomical figure," said Mr. Nichols, administrative assistant to the assistant superintendent for instruction.

He said he doubts that all open classrooms will be closed at one time, but he said "there has been a shift" in thinking about the concept, tipping in favor of "facilities that provide structure and focus."

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