Building booms at private schools New facilities, upkeep seen as a clue to the quality of education

October 27, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Garrison Forest School's headmaster, Peter O'Neill, jokes that the school doesn't plan its calendar without scheduling at least one groundbreaking and one building dedication a year. It seems there's always a building being started or completed on the Owings Mills campus.

The arts center was barely dedicated when architects were sketching out a larger lower school. With that building under way, O'Neill is talking about a new indoor riding arena and athletic center.

It's the same story at many of the area's private schools.

Awash in a hearty economy, an enrollment boom and an era of good feelings about private education, parochial and independent schools are putting up new buildings and renovating old ones with a fury usually reserved for the soccer field. Schools used to erect a building or launch a capital campaign every decade or so, but now the money-seeking and bricklaying often overlap.

"In all the years, I've been around, I've never seen buildings go up like this," said Dyson P. Ehrhardt, director of development at Boys' Latin School, which opened a new lower school in September and will complete a major gymnasium expansion next month.

Among the works in progress:

* The $4 million Morton K. Blaustein Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology, which was dedicated Saturday at the Park School in Brooklandville, includes classrooms, five computer labs, lab space for independent study and a rooftop greenhouse.

* A $5 million lower school at the Gilman School on Roland Avenue, with a goldfish pond in the foyer and enough classrooms to reduce class size by one-third.

* A 30,000-square-foot performing arts center, scheduled to open in September at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, a project that comes on the heels of a 52,000-square-foot fitness center and gym with four side-by-side basketball courts.

* A rare expansion of a city Roman Catholic school -- St. Francis of Assisi School's move to raise the roof to add five classrooms and math and science labs on the new third floor of what was a two-story building on Harford Road.

* A two-phase project at Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville, where a gym is being built and a fine arts center is being planned. The $5.5 million capital campaign is the first for the 145-year-old school.

Other projects have opened recently. A $4 million middle school building and performing arts center at Glenelg Country School in Howard County will enable the middle school to grow by one-third over the next few years. A new Waldorf School building in the city's Coldspring New Town consolidates a school that has operated out of borrowed and rented buildings for 25 years.

Some of the construction reflects pent-up demand from leaner years. Some is intended to accommodate more of the qualified students turned away every year. Some is meant to keep pace in a fast-moving world.

"The school that is not willing to step forward and make these changes will soon look antiquated," said Evelyn Flory, headmistress of St. Paul's School for Girls. The school opened its new gym and fitness center last week, and renovated five science labs to cater to contemporary teaching methods and strategies.

School officials say the building boom is not fueled by competition or marketing strategies.

"Although we're in a boom, it's not building for building's sake. The facilities are an enhancement" to academic and athletic programs, said Garrison Forest's O'Neill, noting that projects under way at the school have been talked about for at least 20 years.

Park School officials worked for four years to ensure that their new science center would support the curriculum and educational atmosphere they are trying to foster.

"Science doesn't happen in a vacuum," said Jan Morrison, chairwoman of the middle and upper school science departments and co-director of the center. New and renovated labs have exposed utility pipes, lights and heating vents, so students can see how their building works.

Flory says a change in facilities often drives changes in curriculum and teaching styles. "If you are redesigning facilities you talk about how you will teach in that facility how you want to use the space," and that usually leads to curriculum adaptations.

Flory notes that her school has one aerobics class; once the new gyms and fitness center are fully operating, there will be many, for students of varying ability.

Other schools are incorporating construction projects into their curriculums.

At Garrison Forest, elementary students use the construction site as a lab for math and science projects. When the foundation was poured, the construction manager described the project and explained how concrete is mixed, poured and smoothed in what the children dubbed "the cement shuffle."

The girls returned to their classrooms, where they mixed their own concrete, said Edie Horney, lower school head. "They're learning construction from below the ground up."

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