`It's still a warm and friendly place'

The first school in Columbia, Bryant Woods Elementary, celebrates its 35th anniversary


September 29, 2004|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There is a historic display at Bryant Woods Elementary this week. A line of yellow paper - marked with the years 1968 through 2004 - stretches along the hall. Under almost every number are signatures. The paper is both a timeline and a guest book for the school's 35th anniversary.

On Sunday, former students, parents and staffers came to celebrate that anniversary at a school that has changed physically but - many at the event said - maintains its welcoming, community philosophy.

"I was very pleased to see that after all these years a lot of [people] were able to say our values were still the same and it's still a warm and friendly place," said Assistant Principal Maria McNelis.

The first school in Columbia, Bryant Woods was still under construction when it opened Sept. 5, 1968. It was the first school in Howard County built with the "open classroom" architecture popular at the time. That open style reflected Jim Rouse's philosophy about Columbia - that a strong sense of community was key to its success.

Principal Jason McCoy, the eighth administrator to lead the school, said, "We are a part of the rich history of Columbia. ... Thirty-five years ago when Mr. Rouse and his developers sat down to plan Columbia, they had in mind a community school. We are still a community school."

Ties to the community drew many guests to Sunday's celebration. As people entered the school gymnasium to listen to speakers, they greeted former teachers and co-workers with hugs.

Gifted and Talented Education Program resource teacher Leslie Weinberg put a group of her students in charge of the anniversary celebration.

"They're running the whole show," Weinberg said. "They wrote letters. They designed the invitation."

Many students who had moved to middle school returned to help Weinberg and the student committee with the program.

"It gave the kids an opportunity to see all the planning stages of the event, things they were really not aware of," said Weinberg.

Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders began working on the program last year and were responsible for introducing the speakers, including school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, Courtney Watson, chairman of the school board, and County Executive James N. Robey.

"It just was very nice to see all of that support," McCoy said of the turnout. "The community really felt the school was highlighted on a countywide level. Just to hear the testimony from former students and staff was also very inspiring to our current staff members because the recurring theme was: This is a community school."

McCoy said that keeping school enrollment small - about 360 students this year - helps maintain, "that sense of community that Rouse envisioned, that we know all the children very well. That sense of community is still very strong. We know our parents well and our parents feel welcome coming into the school."

Another way that Bryant Woods reflects the early values of Columbia is through its diversity. Longtime kindergarten teacher Joan Lee-Powell has seen that diversity develop.

"Because we had so many different kinds of people, and that was [Rouse's] concept, we learned so much. There were people from so many different backgrounds, it was a great blend," said Lee-Powell, who received recognition as the only original staff member teaching at the school.

After speeches, guests took a tour of major renovations made during the past two summers. Even though 2003-2004 was officially Bryant Woods' 35th year, McCoy delayed the celebration until construction was complete.

"We really wanted to do it this school year so we could have everyone see the beautiful renovation and how nice the school looks and how different it looks. It really gave an extra flair to the whole event," he said.

"There were so many people that came back," said Lee-Powell. "They still have those connections and ties to the school and Bryant Woods neighborhood. ... When they come back they always say it's like coming home again."

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