A transformed school system

Growth: Officials work to accommodate a burgeoning county while maintaining students' academic success.

April 25, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

When Charles I. Ecker accepted a teaching job with Carroll County public schools in 1951, he earned $2,450 a year to teach eighth-grade science and physical education. For that kingly sum, he also coached all four of Taneytown Junior-Senior High School's sports and was responsible for lining the fields, scheduling games and hiring buses (or recruiting parents) to drive kids to athletic events.

"People used to ask how I could coach soccer and cross country in the fall," Ecker recalled. "I'd say, `What do you mean? When the cross-country team comes out you tell them to run and when they come back, you tell them to take a shower. What's so hard about that?'"

The school system to which he returned nearly four years ago and remains today as its top administrator is nearly unrecognizable.

There are 40 schools, instead of eight. Starting pay for a new teacher is $35,058. And the once-rural district, made up almost entirely of schools containing 12 grade levels in a single building, now boasts state-of-the-art schools whose students consistently rank among the top academic performers in Maryland.

The school district's reputation - combined with the county's relatively affordable housing market - has lured families seeking a good public education for their children from parts of Baltimore County and more expensive areas in Howard and Montgomery counties.

As a result, the Carroll school system has gained an average of 518 new students in each of the past 10 years, driving up its student enrollment from 24,515 in 1994 to 28,828 this school year.

In an effort to keep pace with such growth, the district has built a new school in each of the past seven years, including opening two new elementary schools - Elmer Wolfe in Union Bridge and Linton Springs in Eldersburg - in 1998. When Parr's Ridge Elementary opens in August 2005 in Mount Airy, it will be the county's 14th new school in 15 years.

"The capital funds are definitely being spent on new schools," said Raymond Prokop, the school system's facilities director. "There just aren't enough funds to go around to properly maintain our infrastructure, so we have deteriorating schools that we're maintaining by patching them together. The longer the problems go, the more expensive they get."

An $18.2 million renovation of North Carroll Middle, a 48-year-old school on Route 30 between Hampstead and Manchester, began in January after years of postponements. Long-delayed improvements to 37-year-old South Carroll High - and construction of a fine arts wing that would make the school's outdated auditorium handicap-accessible - remain at least six years away. And plans to upgrade septic, water and electrical systems at Freedom, William Winchester and Charles Carroll elementary schools (in Eldersburg, Westminster and Silver Run, north of Westminster, respectively) have jockeyed up and down the list of construction priorities as student enrollment projections change and budgets shrink.

The persistent school-construction boom marks a distinct departure from what district officials had hoped and expected would be a quieter time in the facilities department over the past few years.

"When I got here, the projects on our facilities master plan looked to be the transition point to really looking at capital renewal," said Prokop, who joined the school system as a construction supervisor in 1998. "But the reality is that as we'd go another year, new hot spots jump in and the growth issue has not dwindled. ... The major part of our capital plan is still geared toward capacity issues."

Rapid-fire development in Mount Airy and its outskirts in the southwestern corner of the county forced school system construction planners to put off various renovation and modernization projects and focus on the influx of families with young children that threatened to overwhelm area elementary schools.

Planning and funding for Parr's Ridge Elementary won the necessary state and county approvals uncharacteristically quickly and the new $14.5 million school is scheduled to open next year.

"First it was the southwest area. North Carroll is in the crosshairs right now. And we're concerned that the Westminster area may be next," Prokop said.

The surge in new school construction - oftentimes at the expense of improving and updating older buildings - has left the county with a disparate inventory of schools.

New facilities, such as the $34 million Winters Mill High just outside Westminster, feature enough amenities that parents accompanying their children on orientation days wondered aloud whether they could re-enroll in high school as adults. The school boasts a television studio, a ceramics workshop with two kilns and four pottery wheels, and a performance auditorium with 150 dimmer switches on the lights, an elaborate catwalk system and a computerized sound booth.

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