Schools to get rehab early

Improvements to start next spring at Dasher Green, Owen Brown

Last renovation was 1984 Renovation of 2 schools set to start next spring

May 22, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

"Is this a famous math class?" Haley Payne 8, wanted to know as a stream of adults wearing suits -- trailed by a photographer -- strode into her Dasher Green Elementary school classroom.

Principal Friedel U. Warner led Howard County executive James N. Robey, other school officials, a reporter and photographer on a tour of the youngster's crowded, 24-year-old school.

Haley's math class isn't famous, but big things are in the works for Dasher Green and Owen Brown Middle School, which share a building on Cradlerock Way in Columbia. They're due for an earlier-than-expected $3.1 million renovation starting next spring, because the state agreed to provide its $1.1 million share a year early. In addition, the county hopes to build a seven-classroom headquarters for Head Start, the federal pre-kindergarten program, at Dasher Green, if federal money can be secured. The school was last renovated in 1984.

Robey came to visit, he said, as part of a continuing effort to see as many of the county's schools as he can each year. Robey was embroiled in a dispute over school funding for next year because the amount proposed for education -- a record-high $26.5 million more than last year -- is $8.5 million less than the school board requested.

"When I'm sitting on the third floor of the George Howard Building, making decisions, it's much easier when you've been out and seen it up close and personal," he said.

Though crowded with 453 students in a building designed for 415, and saddled with a noisy, often-broken air system, Dasher Green was quiet, orderly and full of smiling faces during Robey's visit last week.

"The repairman is here every day," Warner said about the faulty heating and cooling system, which fills the building with a noticeable hum. Because Dasher Green was an open enrollment school until this year, Warner said, it is packed, and even closets are used for instruction. Newer programs -- such as all-day kindergarten, pre-kindergarten and computer rooms -- also use up classroom space.

Some multi-class areas built as open space -- a concept popular in the 1970s -- are partitioned with furniture and storage cabinets in an attempt to create some private space. Linda Ferrara, a fourth-grade teacher, has a windowless room tucked away behind two others. To reach it, students must troop through the others, but Ferrara loves the privacy.

"I love having an enclosed classroom. I wouldn't give it up," she said.

Warner and Assistant Principal Diane Martin said the building's physical problems aren't the school's only concerns. Transient families, they said, have brought a small, but difficult, group of youngsters that pose problems for the staff.

Warner calls them "children with challenging behavior. Ninety-five percent of the children are fine," she told Robey, "but there's five percent that is just driving us nuts." The school has a full-time guidance counselor, but Warner said she and Martin have become guidance counselors, too. "Whoever is available, even parents, pitch in," she said.

Jeanne Poole, whose son J. W. is a second-grader, volunteers nearly every day, she said. She's been offered a job but turned it down because she wants the freedom to continue volunteering at the school.

"It's rewarding to see that you can help a child. I'm here to help," she said, in addition to keeping an eye on her son.

Dasher Green is one of the county's nine focus elementary schools -- schools that receive extra help to combat problems like lower standardized test scores and the behavior problems Warner described.

With an average score of 56.1 on the 1998 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests, Dasher Green was below the county average of 61.7, but farther behind other, non-focus elementary schools like Atholton, where the average was 73.4, or Centennial Lane, which had the county's high score of 79.5

In addition, a quarter of Dasher Green students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and 9.3 percent of the children take special education classes.

Dasher Green is one of a group of older schools, mainly located in Columbia, where enrollment of African-American pupils has increased rapidly during the past decade. This year, the school is 50.1 percent black and 44 percent white, a dramatic change from 1988, for example, when the school was 20 percent black.

The changes have sparked a major re-examination of how the county delivers education, and several citizen committees have issued reports suggesting ways to reverse public perceptions of which schools are best.

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