Schools open with few glitches

Construction completed just in time as classes begin for 47,000 students

August 27, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Construction workers were putting the finishing touches on school buildings around the district until late Sunday afternoon, but the last-minute painting and tightening apparently paid off. Nearly 47,000 students started classes in Howard County yesterday with few, if any, problems reported.

All additions and renovations were completed on time and on budget, said school spokeswoman Patti Caplan, and only three of 147 vacant teaching positions were left to be filled.

"I don't think we've ever been this close before," Caplan said.

"It's just been a very smooth opening," said Superintendent John R. O'Rourke. "It gives every indication that it's going to be a very smooth year."

Officials said even the opening of two new schools was painless - and in some cases, a lot of fun.

Freshmen and sophomores at Reservoir High - the county's newest high school - were greeted by a grinning, waving, green 'Gator as they unloaded the buses and filed into the expansive new building in Fulton.

The 'Gator, a physician in a rented costume, accepted hugs and high-fives from the school's inaugural inhabitants, in an attempt to ease the anxiety of being brand new students in a brand new school.

"It seemed to be working," said Eugenio Machado, whose daughter Monica is a sophomore at the school. "This is a new school. This is a very involved community. And I just wanted to do something different to try to warm them up to the school."

A few of those students belonged at other schools - the result of a handful of busing mix-ups - but the problems were quickly resolved.

Reservoir Principal Adrianne Kauffman played traffic director a good portion of the morning, standing in intersections funneling harried-looking teen-agers to various hallways and viaducts.

"Will I need a pass?" asked one frightened freshman.

"No, we're being forgiving today," Kauffman said, smiling.

Even though a fourth of the building's classrooms are not being used - because juniors and seniors will not be attending the school until future years - students still had trouble finding their way around.

"It's very new and it's very big," said freshman Jessica Lloyd, 14. "I think we should get longer time between classes. It's confusing."

With just under 600 students attending the school - which eventually will hold more than 1,300 - Kauffman was grateful for the unusual echoing sound of her footsteps coming down the stairs.

"This is a principal's dream," she said.

But many students lamented the lack of juniors and seniors.

"High school isn't complete without 11th- and 12th-graders," said freshman Sherie Mitchell, 14.

"It's not like a real high school environment," agreed Jessica. "It feels like middle school, just with older people."

Some sophomores, who had been redistricted from high schools with all four grade levels, said the freshmen had no idea what luxuries they were missing - not just upperclassmen, for example, but also old friends.

"I keep looking down the halls and seeing nothing but freshmen," said Rachel Monheit, 15, who went to River Hill last year and fought hard to stay there. "And in my first period, I had seven people in my class. Seven! I was sitting in [class] and I was looking and I was like, `I don't know anyone here.' It's just hard."

Kauffman said students like Rachel and others will benefit from the temporarily small student body. They'll get to know one another better, and the staff will get to know them more easily.

"If students can connect with just one adult in the building, they're less likely to drop out and more likely to succeed," she said. "I really believe there's nothing more important than building relationships."

And some students seemed to enjoy the idea of possibly being the big 'Gators in a small, but growing, pond.

"I'm not upset about it," said freshman Leah Gaines, 14, adding that - in lieu of seniors to coo over, she has already taken note of the cute sophomore boys. " 'cause if they [juniors and seniors] were here, that might make it harder for us."

Also opening without glitches yesterday was Homewood School, the county's alternative learning center - which has three special education programs housed in one state-of-the-art facility.

"It was absolutely awesome," said Principal Frank Eastham. "We did not have any issues. It was amazing. Even my experienced staff said, `I didn't know it was going to go this well.'"

Homewood is the new site for three challenging programs: Passages, for students in transition from court-appointed programs or who have had trouble with other alternative education plans; Bridges, for students with emotional disabilities; and Gateway, for students with behavior troubles.

Eastham said the new building behind school board headquarters on Route 108 is a clear indication of the county's commitment to educating all students, regardless of race, income-level or prior difficulties.

"The students were just elated to be in a facility that shows them so much respect, even though they may have behavioral or discipline issues," he said. "It says we are going to give kids who have had trouble the same kind of facilities and the same kind of programming as we do the rest of our kids."

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