New school gives Essex 'new pride' Opening day: For three generations of families, the elementary was the hub of the community, which fought for and won -- a new building.

November 28, 1995|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

More than 500 Essex youngsters will parade into a brand-new school today, marking a new beginning for a community pillar that has nurtured three generations of families.

With skylights, bright colors, classroom phones and lockers for all, the new Essex Elementary has triggered excitement and a new pride among students and teachers -- and throughout the blue-collar community.

And well it should. For not only did many local residents grow up around the "old" Essex, but they have also fought and labored for the "new" Essex -- a $6.8 million state-of-the-art school that "gives this area a whole new look," said PTA President Carol Jones.

"There was a real groundswell from the community to get this building," said Kenneth Lawton, who has been assistant principal at Essex for 10 years. "Although other elementary schools are part of Essex proper, we're the only school that has the name. The school has been a hub of the community."

The community even rallied to rescue a piece of the 70-year-old Baltimore County school. Thanks to a $10,000 community conservation grant and a sale of commemorative bricks, the PTA raised the $20,000 needed to put the building's two-story limestone arch in a small park in front of the new building.

"It's a real nice thing to tie the past into the new," said Ms. Jones, adding that the PTA sold 360 bricks inscribed with donors' names, memories and good wishes for the school. "Even though we have a new building and a new look, we have the same spirit."

That spirit brought the problems of the long-overlooked school to the attention of school and community leaders, as well as state officials -- and saw the project through some budget setbacks.

Al Clasing, former member of the county planning board, recalls being among county officials invited by the Essex PTA and then-Principal Jean Satterfield to tour the building about four years ago.

"Only one person showed and that was me," he said. "I was appalled. I felt bad and embarrassed."

He soon attracted other officials to the school and appropriated the first $50,000 in planning board money for a study. It recommended replacing, rather than renovating, the school.

Describing the building at the time of the study, former School Facilities Administrator Keith Kelley said: "We've got tremendous problems there with toilet room odors; the urine is in the concrete. There's asbestos in there. We've got termites."

Former state Del. E. Farrell Maddox, who calls the new school "one of my biggest accomplishments in public office," took the school's problems to the state planning board and eventually to then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"It was very difficult to get funding because the school was not a priority," Mr. Maddox said. But the state did allocate $2.16 million late in 1993. Former County Executive Roger B. Hayden also championed the cause, committing more than $4 million in county money when he became aware of the school's condition.

"It was a grass-roots effort that started at the school," Ms. Satterfield said. "The PTA was very diligent. They went out into the greater community and said this is what we need."

The Essex faculty and staff has done its part -- and then some -- for the school, administrators say. They painted and patched the old building on their own time, Mr. Clasing recalled, and then worked on the design and equipment for the new building. They also engineered the move after classes.

Essex was closed last week, so teachers and staff could set up classrooms and offices. While workers finished hallways and installed the security system, teachers put up bulletin boards and stacked books, delighted with their new surroundings.

Built directly behind the hulking, old building on Mace Avenue, the new school houses 23 classrooms, a gymnasium that the county recreation and parks program will share, a large cafeteria with two serving lines, a computer laboratory and a library with a two-story atrium.

"That's the focal point of the school," said Principal James Wilgamott as he showed off the building.

Despite the parade with banners and a salute from the Kenwood High band, today's opening will be relatively quiet, said the principal. Students will begin the day in the old building. At midmorning, they will march to the new, lower building with its teal, brown and white walls, red lockers and architecture that resembles a contemporary mall more than a traditional school.

Many students will be seeing their new school for the first time. But many residents will have to wait until January when the school holds its official open houses.

In fact, the opening has been so quiet that some community activists, such as Mr. Clasing and Mr. Maddox, weren't aware the school was ready to open.

Ms. Satterfield, now a special education coordinator for northeast-area schools, remains excited about the new school.

"This will reinforce to students that they are valuable," she said.

"The school staff is a wonderful staff. A new building just enhances that. This is a wonderful addition to the community."

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