Parents uncertain about open classrooms Boundary shifts put pupils in new setting

January 25, 1998|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The open-space classrooms at Eldersburg Elementary School worry scores of South Carroll parents whose children might be sent there in the fall when a new school opens.

With the opening of Linton Springs Elementary School, the boundary lines in heavily populated South Carroll will shift to alleviate crowding at several schools.

Linton Springs will be filled mostly with the current Eldersburg population. That leaves Eldersburg free to pull in students from several other schools that are crowded.

It also means Eldersburg will lose parents and students who, in general, have not minded its open classes. The school will gain a new population unaccustomed to the arrangement -- and skeptical of the open-classroom concept.

"I think if you start in an open school, you're fine, but you have these communities who don't want to switch to open from [traditional closed] classrooms," said Robin May, a mother of three who lives in Hammond Estates, off Bartholow Road.

Under some of the redistricting options the school board is considering, Hammond Estates would switch from Freedom District Elementary School to Eldersburg.

Eldersburg's open-space suites have defenders. They acknowledge that this kind of school isn't universally liked, but the floor plan is spacious and includes divisions and space between classes, allowing teachers and students to concentrate.

"Eldersburg is not chaotic," said Molly McEvoy, president of the PTA at Eldersburg and an active parent there for seven years. "It is not some sort of wide open barn of a school."

But May said she and her husband moved to Carroll County before their children were in school and chose their neighborhood specifically to avoid the open classrooms at Eldersburg and Carrolltowne elementary schools.

Her husband, Tim May, had switched as a child from a traditional parochial school to a public school with open classrooms and found it distracting.

Hearings held

The school board will make a decision on a redistricting plan in mid-March. Parents attended two public hearings last week.

At the first hearing, parents from Eldersburg and Piney Ridge elementaries had few concerns. Most of the Eldersburg parents will go to the new school -- something parents rarely oppose.

But the second hearing, for Freedom and Carrolltowne elementary school parents, drew many more concerned parents and other residents of Hammond Estates. They favor one of the four options that would allow them to stay at Freedom.

Some Carrolltowne Elementary parents, whose children are in open classrooms, don't want to leave the school. Other Carrolltowne parents were dismayed that all the proposals leave their school crowded and dependent on portable classrooms. Carrolltowne has 882 students -- more than any other elementary school in the county.

First in the county

But most of the talk is about Eldersburg's open rooms. The first open-space school in the county, Eldersburg was built in 1969 -- the last Carroll school built solely with county money and before the growth spurt. It had a more generous budget that allowed for spacious common areas in each suite of four classrooms, said Vernon Smith, director of school support services for Carroll.

Other open-space schools in Carroll don't have that central area, and at Robert Moton Elementary in Westminster, parents and staff asked for more walls. During the past two years, the school has gotten dividing walls in the first- and fifth-grade areas.

But no such movement has developed in the Eldersburg community. At the school, each suite has four classroom spaces surrounding a common area that is about the size of another classroom, providing a buffer of space and reducing noise.

The center area also has a domed ceiling that teachers credit for drawing away noise so that one classroom isn't heard by another.

It was to be the prototype for open schools in Carroll County, but after the state school building reimbursement program started in the 1970s, setting less generous square-footage standards, schools were built smaller, without those central areas, Smith said.

In addition to Moton, Carrolltowne and Westminster elementaries have open classrooms. All schools built since 1970 have movable walls that allow teachers to merge classrooms.

At Eldersburg, veteran teachers such as Pam Alexander say they wouldn't want to teach any other way.

"I love it," said Alexander, whose son started first grade when the school opened. She has been teaching there for 22 of her 27 years in Carroll schools and has taught in closed and open classrooms.

"I like the camaraderie, I like the availability of another adult," she said. "We are a community."

Alexander and the other fifth-grade teachers often gather all the students in the common area briefly in the morning to start a new unit, such as science, continuing after they split up into the individual classrooms.

For the math unit, they divide the students by ability and usually arrange for the teacher with a strong background in math to teach it to all the students. One of Alexander's strengths is poetry. Vicki Wilmer is the math enthusiast. David Dewan is the arts and sports specialist.

"We teach to our strengths," Alexander said.

When the school opened, some teachers didn't like the open-space format and asked for transfers. But since then, the staff has remained stable, Alexander said.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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