Effort pressed for walls in open classroom space at Pine Grove Elementary

Furnishings can't contain the din

money is problem

June 05, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

As an education major at York College of Pennsylvania in the 1970s, Allen Zink visited Pine Grove Elementary School in Baltimore County to glimpse a new educational trend -- the open classroom.

Twenty-five years later, Zink, now Pine Grove's principal, and a group of PTA members are determined to undo what educators thought would be so beneficial decades ago: They want walls.

"You can always hear the hum," said Zink as he toured Pine Grove's large open-space area, which is home to as many as seven classes at a time. "It's a full house in the afternoons."

Dividing each of the seven classroom areas are chalk boards, bookcases, desks and file cabinets. But the furnishings aren't enough to contain the din produced by young hands and voices.

Recently, Pine Grove parents lobbied the Board of Education for extra money to enclose classes in the open classroom area. So far, their pleas have gone unanswered.

But that's not to say they feel defeated. Far from it, said Debbie Singer, Pine Grove's PTA president.

School board President Donald L. Arnold, who used to live near Pine Grove, has visited the open classroom area, as has Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, said Singer.

Everyone seems to agree that open classrooms are a problem. Coming up with money to enclose them is another.

The problem is not unique to Pine Grove. Across the county, 21 schools have open classroom areas, said Zink. Most of them were built in the 1970s, when the open-classroom theory was in vogue. The cost to enclose all of the county's open classrooms has been estimated at $25 million, he said.

At the time, educators believed that students would benefit from the open classrooms because teachers, often working as teams, could divide them into small groups so they could practice newly acquired skills at "learning stations" located around the room, said Phyllis Bailey, associate superintendent for educational support services.

When Pine Grove added its open classroom area -- an addition necessary because of an unexpected surge in enrollment -- there were no bookcases or chalkboards to break up the space, he said.

"There were just chairs and desks," said Susan Ayd-Chaudron, Pine Grove's PTA vice president-elect, whose husband is a Pine Grove alumnus. "He still remembers this huge, open space."

Pine Grove parents understand that money is tight, said Singer. They know, too, that the school system is in the beginning stages of a multiyear improvement plan that will affect almost every campus in the county. As part of that plan, Pine Grove could receive about $2.5 million of work, including a new heater, roof and student lockers.

But parents say they won't give up -- even if it takes years to find money to wall up the area.

"Slow and constant, that's our motto," said Ayd-Chaudron, who added that she'll be happy if the problem is solved by the time her kindergartner enters the fifth grade.

That philosophy seems to be paying off. As a result of the PTA's persistent but polite campaign, the school board has requested a report on the effectiveness of open classrooms, said Donald I. Mohler, Northeast Area superintendent. The report is due before the end of the summer.

"The key question is if the focus is on student achievement -- is it better for children to come to school in an open space environment or a more traditional, closed classroom setting?" said Mohler. "Here you have a school where children are performing very well, but think what they might do if put in a setting where teachers and children weren't as distracted."

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