A new school tries to calm pupil anxiety

Innovation: Bellows Spring Elementary borrows ideas from other schools to form its own plans and traditions.

October 01, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Rachel Slahetka started fifth grade at her third elementary school, the newly opened Bellows Spring in Ellicott City, she and her redistricted classmates were among those most anxious about the change.

But administrators, teachers and parents have tried to make the transition a smooth one for Howard County's redistricted fifth-graders, who will spend one year at their new school.

"Going into a new school your last year can make it tough," said Rachel's mother, Alicia Slahetka, who is Bellows Spring's PTA president. "We're putting a few things in place to make it an enjoyable and memorable year for the fifth-graders."

Bellows Spring opened in August as the county's 37th elementary school despite major vandalism during the building's construction. Yesterday, officials from the Maryland State Department of Education's construction department and a group from Howard County's Board of Education toured the school.

Finishing touches such as hanging surveillance cameras and seeding lawns with grass are being completed. Officials visited the school "to see what's working and what isn't working" in the school's design, said Bellows Spring Principal Marion Miller. The building's cafeteria and media center are larger than in most county elementary schools.

"These people just want to make sure that the work that they do is helpful to the school system," Assistant Superintendent of Schools Roger Plunkett said of the state officials' visit. "The state has been very good with the follow-up: `Let's come out and look at the final product, see if we're headed in the right direction.' "

In December, stolen construction equipment was used to vandalize the unfinished school. Repairing the damage cost $115,000, most of which was covered by insurance, but the school was able to open on time. "It didn't stop anything," Miller said. "The man was apprehended. The insurance kicked in."

Children from four schools were redistricted to the new elementary facility: Deep Run, Elkridge, Rockburn and Waterloo. Although enrollment projections showed that Bellows Spring would be crowded by next school year, Miller said the county Board of Education has corrected the problem by redistricting a neighborhood that is under construction to another school.

In the spring, Miller and Bellows Spring Assistant Principal Ron Morris visited the four schools that would be sending children to their building. "Ron and I went and talked with the children. We went over ground rules of what to expect," she said.

Miller and the staff used ideas from all the schools to create what she called a "hybrid" behavior plan for Bellows Spring.

Integrating traditions, practices and the children themselves has been a continuing effort. Slahetka said many parents were as nervous about changing schools as their children. "I think because it was new and nobody got to see the school ahead of time, that created anxiety for the parents and the children," she said.

Opportunities to visit the building, such as a summer ice cream social, attracted hundreds.

Morris, who previously was assistant principal at Waterloo Elementary, knew 300 of the children, nearly half the school. "Which I think was extremely helpful," he said. "There's a comfort level for me with the students, knowing so many of the students and a number of families."

Slahetka said the transition has gone well for her children and her. She also has a third-grader at Bellows Spring.

"We're a month into school, and I feel really comfortable there, just like I was at Waterloo. The staff, the administration - they are absolutely fabulous," she said.

Teachers, many of whom also moved from other schools, took their ideas and traditions with them.

"The teachers are excited. They get to form the program and the curriculum, and that is really neat," Slahetka said.

"I think it's an advantage for my children because we're getting all kinds of ideas instead of the same old way year after year."

Miller added, "It's so invigorating and exciting to start from the ground floor and create a school."

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