Donations rebuild classroom

Individuals, organizations help replace stolen, vandalized materials

December 20, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Valerie Belton's fourth-grade class has been through many ups and downs this year.

On the first day of school, the teacher treated her pupils to a surprise: She had decorated her drab portable classroom at Gardenville Elementary School with new furniture and colorful rugs donated by IKEA.

But last month, vandals broke into three classrooms at the Northeast Baltimore school and undid all of Belton's work.

They tore down posters and children's work from the walls, sprayed books and furniture with a fire extinguisher, threw items out of a window, and stole a computer and board games. School police have not made an arrest in the case.

Now things are looking up again.

Prompted by news reports about the vandalism, more than a dozen people and organizations have donated money, supplies and other assistance to Belton's class and the two other damaged classrooms in recent weeks.

A woman in Glen Burnie donated $20. A Baltimore man wrote the school a check for $200. CitiFinancial pledged to donate 10 computers, and the Maryland Historical Society sent a bus to pick up the kids for a field trip.

Fourth-graders at Gerstell Academy, a private school in Finksburg, wrote a letter to Belton's pupils, urging them to keep their spirits up. They also held a bake sale to raise money and ended up donating $200 and three large tubs of school supplies.

"I felt blessed. I felt overwhelmed," Belton said.

Meg Zerhusen, a teacher at Gerstell Academy, said the incident struck a nerve with her because she also teaches fourth-graders.

"I told my class about it, and they right away said they wanted to do something," Zerhusen recalled. "We didn't do anything complicated or magnificent, but it was just a gesture that we understood what happened to them and cared about them."

One morning last week, as the 20 pupils in Belton's class worked quietly on a language arts assignment, some signs of the vandalism were still visible.

The pages in a pupil's workbook were warped from having been doused with water. A wooden table was rickety, one of its legs broken loose by the vandals. Several bear-shaped chairs, which had been sprayed with a fire extinguisher, still were slightly powdery.

But the pupils appeared to be in good spirits. Shaniquya Allen, 9, said she liked the holiday decorations Belton had put up. "I don't want anybody to take our lights or our Christmas tree," she said.

Shaniquya said she thinks it was some older kids who broke into the classroom. "They did it just to make us feel bad," she said.

Her classmate, Eric Morton, added: "And they were just hurting their brothers and sisters."

Belton said she has turned the incident into a learning experience. The pupils have written journal entries about how the vandalism made them feel and thank-you letters to the fourth-graders at Gerstell Academy.

Although maintenance workers have reinforced the classroom's windows, Belton said she is still concerned about vandals finding a way to break in. She said she would feel better if an alarm system were installed.

Principal Barbara Sawyer agrees that the portables are vulnerable but says the school cannot afford additional security. A couple of years ago, Sawyer looked into buying surveillance cameras but decided they were too expensive. "I don't think it's adequate security," she said. "We can't see what goes on."

Belton has taken steps to make her classroom less of a target for vandals. She now keeps the window shades drawn all day, although she used to enjoy letting in sunlight.

And instead of the full-size Christmas tree she usually gets this time of year, Belton bought one that is just 2 feet tall - and less noticeable.

"We're not going to stop having fun," Belton said. "We're just not going to draw attention to what we're doing."

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