Rising from the ashes School: A disastrous fire sent elementary pupils into exile almost four years ago. Today, they return home.

November 23, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Not even a fire could destroy the spirit of Sparks Elementary School. Almost four years after its historic building burned down, Sparks enters its new home today.

The journey -- which sent pupils to share classroom space at Cockeysville Middle School and forced teachers to re-create lost instructional materials -- concludes with the opening of a $10.6 million facility 1 1/2 miles from the original school.

The opening is more than just teachers and pupils entering a new, 21-classroom building full of the latest in education technology. It's also the final chapter in a story about a community and a school coming together.

"We're finally back," says Thomas Ellis, Sparks' principal. "It hasn't been easy, but the time since the fire has been proof of people's generosity and kindness."

This morning will be the first time the 305 Sparks pupils will see the replacement for the 85-year-old schoolhouse that burned on a Sunday morning in January 1995. None has been permitted inside until today's ribbon-cutting.

"I can't wait to go in and sit down at my new desk," says 10-year-old Lauren Shobe, who was a first-grader when the school burned. "It's so exciting!"

The fire that destroyed what was then the second-oldest school in Baltimore County left little behind. What wasn't lost in the blaze was either ruined by firefighters' water or contaminated by asbestos.

"I remember walking through the building to put out the hot spots and looking down and seeing huge holes where the second-floor roof had crashed all of the way down into the basement," recalls Jim Powers, a firefighter with Hereford Volunteer Fire Department who works in the school system's Office of Warehousing. "It was the most damage I have ever seen from a fire."

Only the crumbling stone front, flagpoles and pillars remained. School administrators recovered computerized pupil records and a fish tank from the main office. Musical instruments kept in a portable classroom were untouched by the fire.

"I had just moved from a trailer back into the main building that September, and a retiring teacher had sent me 15 boxes of her materials," says fourth-grade teacher Barbara Metzler, who is in her 10th year at Sparks. "Four months later, it's all gone. We had to start over with nothing."

Within days, donations poured in from Baltimore County and schools throughout Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. Sets of encyclopedias, boxes of crayons and lesson plans arrived for months.

"With the fire, we got to see the good side of people," says Ellis. "I just couldn't believe how many other schools wanted to help us get back on our feet."

For school officials, figuring out where to put the displaced pupils became the top priority. Sparks teachers and pupils wanted to stay together rather than be split up in several buildings -- and, with the help of a few portable classrooms, Cockeysville Middle School turned out to have enough space.

Even the Halten Garden Club -- which has been volunteering at Sparks and tending gardens there since 1916 -- moved temporarily to Cockeysville.

"The fire was just a tragedy, destroying projects that had been in place for decades," says Peggy Miller, chairwoman of the club's Sparks project. "We were enormously flattered when they called us because they wanted a touch of home at their temporary building."

Despite not having its building, Sparks kept to its motto, "Always moving forward." It became the first school in the county to achieve the superintendent's goal of having every child reading at or above grade level by the end of second grade.

Almost all the pupils who remember old Sparks have moved on to middle school. The only ones who remain were in kindergarten and first grade when the fire occurred.

"It's been hard at the middle school sometimes because we have to share everything in the building," says fifth-grader Sarah Randall, 10. "Whenever we wanted to have an assembly or a school play, we had to check to see if the space is free.

"They've been good to us, but the middle school students are really loud," she says.

School officials spent 20 months searching for a site, settling on about 50 acres along Belfast Road that overlook Interstate 83.

As the school was being built, members of the Sparks community drove by and eagerly awaited the day it would open. The old school had served not just as the community's center of education but also as home for a church, a community association and a recreation council -- and the new building is expected to do the same.

"The school is the center of this community," says Sparks parent Leslie Perry, who has served as chairwoman of the school's moving committee. "It's wonderful that it's finally about to open."

Next fall, about 100 pupils will join Sparks from Jacksonville Elementary School when boundary lines are changed. School officials delayed the transfer to give Sparks pupils and teachers time to adjust to their midyear move.

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