Replacing Sparks Elementary

January 10, 1995

The devastation of the historic Sparks Elementary School in northern Baltimore County underscores that a school is more than a collection of rooms where children discover the three Rs. It fills countless community needs beyond academics. The Sparks school was an election-day polling station, a meeting hall for a neighborhood association, a place for Brownie and Girl Scout troops, a site for a religious congregation's services and more.

The value of such an institution is enhanced when, as in the case of Sparks Elementary, it was a community focal point for decades. Opened in 1909, the Sparks school was the only one in a region covering 200 square miles -- a third of the area of Baltimore County -- until the 1950s. It was poignantly symbolic that among the current and former students visiting the building's charred exterior after last Sunday's three-alarm fire were an 11-year-old fifth-grader and a 95-year-old man who recalled walking home from school along three miles of Northern Central Railroad track.

County and education officials have been working on arrangements for the 300 pupils and their teachers who suddenly are without a building. Finding the needed 11 classrooms is the immediate priority. The likely solution will be to make room for the Sparks students and staff at neighboring schools, such as the Jacksonville school that was opened in 1993 to ease overcrowding at Sparks. (Another possibility that has been mentioned is a temporary set-up in the space Macy's formerly occupied at nearby Hunt Valley Mall. The traditional red-brick schoolhouse, it ain't, though the kids might like being so close to the mall.)

Once Sparks students are in classes again -- by Thursday at the earliest -- school officials will think about whether the school should be rebuilt. A 1991 feasibility study by the county found that the hilly site could not tolerate further construction. All the available flat land is covered by the existing structure; also, the school's well and septic tank are pushed to capacity. New schools -- like Jacksonville's -- can be built with all the modern conveniences and the space to serve up to three times as many students as Sparks could.

Should Sparks Elementary be raised from its ashes? The question is made difficult by the sentimental and practical value of this historic building.

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