Lessons in enduring neglect

School: At cramped Featherbed Elementary, education defies dilapidation and patchwork fixes.

October 11, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

On a recent morning at Featherbed Lane Elementary School, the lights were out in a trailer where third-graders attend class. Blood dripped from the head of a teacher struck by an opening door as she tried to squeeze through a congested hallway. And a speech pathologist scrambled to find a desk to use to help a boy.

Otherwise, it was a good day at the Woodlawn school, which has suffered from official neglect for years despite repeated complaints by parents about the cramped, makeshift conditions.

Featherbed Lane Elementary is one of Baltimore County's most dispiriting public school buildings, so short of space that sometimes gym classes take place in the front lobby and tutoring goes on in the halls.

Pupils who take classes in dank trailers must walk outside to get to the lunchroom, the library and the bathrooms. Some reading and special education help is provided in a windowless room that had been a storage closet, its door propped open to provide some fresh air.

Things won't change anytime soon, either.

In the school system's budget proposal for next fiscal year, there is money to repair the kitchen exhaust systems, renovate science laboratories and build additions at various schools. But again, there is no money for fixing up Featherbed Lane.

School officials pledge to do what they can. Angry parents say that is not enough.

"My daughter, she sometimes says, `Mommy, why don't we get the same things other kids have?'" says Stephannie Wilson, the PTA president, who has a folder stuffed with correspondence dating to 1997 requesting renovations.

"I think the children feel this is what Baltimore County thinks they're worth."

The school board, administration and county politicians know about the conditions at Featherbed Lane. They've visited. At recent school board meetings, they heard parents' pleas. And they heard fellow board members decry the situation.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston acknowledged that Featherbed Lane needed major work. "I empathize with" the parents, he said.

He said the school system would provide what short-term relief it could and work for major renovations, which would take longer to get funding for due to the intricacies of the capital budgeting process.

"It didn't happen overnight, and it is going to take some time to address through the funding process," Hairston said. The county executive and County Council oversee the school budget, and the state plays a role in construction projects because it provides some funding.

One should not get the idea that Featherbed Lane is an instructional wasteland.

Recent standardized test scores showed double-digit gains in math and reading. Class sizes are a manageable 18 to 26 students, administrators said. On a tour of the school, pupils can be seen earnestly studying and parents volunteering inside the building. Teachers and staff smile.

But too much instructional time is lost while children travel between the various structures erected on campus for the growing student population, administrators, teachers and parents complain.

"Last year was the first time I put in for a transfer," says Joan Droter, an art teacher for 13 years at the school. Her "office" is carved out of the back of a regular classroom. She must push a broken cart with supplies between classrooms because there is no space for one of her own. "It's physically too much."

Built in 1958, Featherbed Lane Elementary is grappling with the effects of African-American families migrating from the city, in the 1990s, in search of better schools.

By 1998, the enrollment had grown so large that the school was divided into two units - one for pre-kindergarten through second grade, the other for third through fifth grades - each with its own principal. To provide additional space, trailers were parked on the property; some sit on concrete blocks.

Parents, faculty and staff expected relief with the opening, in 2000, of Dogwood Elementary School nearby. But Featherbed Lane lost just 10 students overall to Dogwood Elementary while gaining 150 other students in the redistricting, said its principals, Barbara G. McLennan and Yasmin R. Stokes.

This year, Featherbed Lane has 751 pupils, seven below its state-rated capacity but still large for an elementary school. And the two principals say enrollment will probably rise over the course of the school year, as it always does, especially after families start moving into two nearby housing developments that will soon open.

Now, because so many of the students need extra help with reading and assistance with learning disabilities, free space at the school is at a minimum.

Almost every closet and nook has been converted. The principals are eyeing the alcove in front of the men's faculty bathroom for speech pathology tutoring.

Rhondalyn Vaughn-Horton tutors pupils one-on-one at a small desk planted in the hallway of a modular building, next to a smelly girls' bathroom.

"I love when my sinus comes up," she adds, "because that way I don't smell anything."

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