Aging schools compare poorly with new facilities

October 16, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

Call it a tale of two schools.

One is Ellicott Mills Middle School, a 55-year-old, dimly lighted, inadequately equipped building with narrow hallways and cramped classrooms.

The other is Mayfield Woods Middle School, a 3-year-old shining example of the county's newest schools, with ample lighting, wide stairways and a network of televisions and videocassette recorders in every classroom.

As Howard County school officials build bigger, better-equipped and more technologically advanced schools to relieve crowded ones and provide seats for future students, parents with children in the county's aging schools see the disparities and wonder why their children can't get the same.

"It's not so much the physical building itself. Kids don't have access to the same material that others do," said Bill Spanos, an Ellicott Mills parent. "We're just trying to have equal access for technological information that everyone else has so our children get the same education everyone else has."

The county school board last week unanimously voted to build a replacement school for Ellicott Mills in 1999, despite a staff recommendation to delay it for three years to spread the cost of an expensive, 10-year construction plan. Board members have applauded Ellicott Mills teachers for making the best of a difficult situation.

But it will take five years before Ellicott Mills' replacement opens.

And the problems at Ellicott Mills are part of a much bigger problem in a fast-growing county running out of classroom seats and textbooks.

Of the county's 57 elementary, middle and high schools, 35 are 20 years or older and soon will need renovation.

Much of the work entails costly replacement of ventilation systems, lighting fixtures and ceiling panels, which typically have only a two-decade life span.

But such renovations don't even take into account the long list of needs at older schools: bigger cafeterias, gyms and media centers; more computers and better software; more telephone lines for computer classes; more and updated books; new lockers and playground equipment; and even at some schools, replacing public-address systems.

Pressured in part by parents at aging schools, education officials in recent years began a long-term, $5 million-a-year program to systematically renovate the older schools.

The 25-year-old Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City was the first to get major renovations -- among them, new classroom areas, walls, duct work and heating and air conditioning units.

Wilde Lake Middle, also a quarter-century old, will receive similar treatment starting in the spring.

But school officials said major renovations at Ellicott Mills, the county's third oldest school, wouldn't be worth it.

The school's site is only 16 acres, and new middle schools typically are built on 27- to 35-acre lots. Its structure, while essentially sound, does not meet today's educational needs.

That's only a small part of the problems at Ellicott Mills, parents say.

The school's computer lab is too small. Many of its computers can't run current software. Teachers must park on the grass because the school's lot is too small. Disabled visitors and students face obstacles because not all levels in the three-story school are accessible by wheelchair. The lockers need paint, and the gym and cafeteria are smaller than those at new elementary schools.

There's also not enough laboratory classrooms for Ellicott Mills' six science teachers, who rotate classrooms so students can attend labs. Science teacher Bill Gallerizzo teaches five classes at four different locations three days a week and at two different locations two days a week.

He spends a lot of time lugging equipment, and his students' lab training is limited.

"I think the students are getting a good education," Mr. Gallerizzo said. "But I could do a more complete job working with kids if I had one location where I'd be."

And compared with such new schools as Mayfield Woods Middle, the differences are startling.

Ellicott Mills' media center is at least half the size of Mayfield Woods' library, which recently earned a statewide award for its inviting atmosphere. Ellicott Mills has 33 computers for student use, compared with Mayfield Woods' 64. Even if Ellicott Mills received more computers, teachers say they would be hard-pressed to find spots to put them.

In Ellicott Mills' seventh-grade area, classrooms look like cubbyholes, lack doors and are barely separated by 2-inch thick walls that don't shut out noise. Students can hear the teacher in the next room.

"There're too many distractions, too [much] noise," parent Linda Betts said.

By contrast, large classrooms at Mayfield Woods are enclosed, separated on one side by a freshly painted wall and on the other by a well-built partition that can be moved to allow teachers to combine classes when needed.

Ellicott Mills music teacher Chrystie Adams can't hold concerts or other functions at her school because the stage area is taken up by weightlifting equipment.

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