Catonsville Elementary offers charms and ills of old school Many system buildings have similar situations

March 20, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Like a quirky old house, Catonsville Elementary School has its charms -- and its chronic ills.

The windows stick, and the heat is often uncontrollable. But when a large window fell from its frame and crashed to the floor of a fifth-grade classroom last week, Principal Catherine Amsel decided some of the ailments were not simply inconvenient. They were dangerous.

No one was injured and "within two hours, the window was fixed, but the fact that it happened scared me," she said.

The incident gives credence to the $400 million that Baltimore County school officials estimate they will need for the repairs to maintain and update the system's nearly 160 buildings, many of them beyond middle-age.

At Catonsville, heat and windows are the major concerns, but they aren't the only ones, Amsel said. The electrical system is inadequate for the needed number of computers and copiers; the building has too many doors for the sake of security; and there are too few bathrooms for the comfort of kindergartners.

Still, the county's second oldest school -- Randallstown Elementary was built two years earlier in 1908 -- has much to recommend it. Catonsville, which has 625 students, boasts a good roof, spacious classrooms, plenty of sunshine and a

convenient location on Frederick Road in the center of the area's business district.

"It's a wonderful building," said fifth-grade teacher Joan McMahon. "We really just do need some things. We need new windows. We're beginning to need new floors."

Obviously, Catonsville isn't alone. More than 80 percent of the county's schools were built before 1970, and even routine maintenance was not done in leaner economic times.

"I think we are going to see a lot of window replacements," said Gene L. Neff, the school system's chief engineer. "They're high on the list."

At Catonsville, facilities department crews not only fixed the window that fell in, they checked to be sure there were no other loose windows in the rambling building, which originally was Catonsville High School.

"For the short term, we've got that taken care of," Neff said.

The systemwide assessment of the school's physical condition has not been completed, so Neff would not give an overall condition report on Catonsville Elementary or say where it would land on the priority list for repairs.

Despite its age, Catonsville is not decrepit.

"When I came to this building, I was impressed," said Amsel, who is in her first year as principal. "The county has done a fairly good job. It was freshly painted. We have nice, clean fresh air and big windows to get lots of sunshine."

But those windows are clearly a mixed blessing. Installed as replacement windows in the 1970s, they frequently stick shut on warm days, while allowing winter drafts to blow posters and disturb other classroom decorations.

Because Catonsville has a heating system that doesn't respond to thermostat settings, those breezes are sometimes welcome. And even when the windows open, they let in other distractions -- noise and bees.

"Do we burn up in here or put up with noise?" asked first-grade teacher Robin Neal.

"Bees become a very real problem in the spring," McMahon said, "and you know what it's like when you get two or three bees in a room."

On a recent morning, however, a group of busy fifth-graders seemed oblivious to their school's ills, giving nearly blank stares when asked what, if anything, was wrong with the building.

Erinne Briley mentioned an occasional bug, and a few classmates said rooms were too hot sometimes. Even students who were in the room when the window crashed, such as Joe Weedon and Andrew Heller, seemed unfazed. "We like it," Weedon said of the school.

"It was just the wind," said Timmy Schatz, explaining away the mishap. "The building's fine. It doesn't need any repairs."

For the principal, however, the building's many entrances present problems that no one could have foreseen when the school was built.

"We make a special effort to make sure these doors are closed at all times," Amsel said. "But right now, you can push them open, and they stay open." A child on the way out or an unknowing adult using a side entrance can leave the building open to strangers.

She said the doors can be adapted so they will close on their own, and Neff said a security system is among the improvements planned for Catonsville.

Besides scheduled summer repairs to the heating system and )) other adjustments, Catonsville will get more relief next school year, when Westchester Elementary School opens.

About 200 of Catonsville's students will transfer there, providing space for a separate computer lab and a room for the music teacher -- who uses the auditorium this year -- in the old, crowded school.

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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