A high school's future

A Panel Is Considering Options For South Carroll, Including Modernization, New Building


SITTING ON the cold floor with a row of lockers to her back, Natalie Stephens perks up when asked about the oil painting leaning against the wall.

On the canvas, her sister is depicted in strokes of cool blues and white peering through a window at the world just beyond the glass.

"I wanted to try something different," said the 17-year-old senior from Sykesville. "I started over the summer, and my influence was ... to experiment with shades of white and different textures."

While her painting captures streaming light, Stephens works from a windowless hallway across from the art classroom at South Carroll High in Winfield.

"We have no studio space," said Stephens, who is completing the painting as part of her independent study in fine arts. "We have a lot of different art classes ... which makes it hard [to find somewhere] to do your art."

To address concerns about a lack of modern facilities at the school, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker established a committee recently to consider a menu of options, including whether to undertake a multimillion-dollar modernization of the school or to convert the high school into a middle school and build a new South Carroll High.

School officials acknowledge that despite some recent upgrades, South Carroll High is an old building. Built in 1967, the well-maintained facility is outdated in many ways.

For instance, math and foreign language classes are separated by bookcases, instead of walls, because of the open-space concept that prevailed in the late 1960s and '70s; an aging heating and ventilation system often forces the teacher in the computer lab to shut down the machines to avoid overheating the room; and the fine arts classes, such as music, band and art, are scheduled in rooms at the opposite end of the building from the auditorium.

The antiquated auditorium -- which can seat only a fraction of the school's 1,195 students, has no sound system and a tiny stage -- has been the primary rallying point for people who want either a major makeover for the school or a new building.

"It's not like the building is falling down all around you," said former school board member Laura K. Rhodes, who is on the committee exploring this issue. "But when you start looking at the other high schools -- and you see their chorus facilities, the band and science facilities -- you see a huge difference ... in what's available."

Some parents have complained that because the building lacks many of the latest technologies, their children are not getting an education that is at least as good as any other in the county.

For years, plans to modernize the fine arts center -- to bring the facility up to par with the newer county high schools such as Century in Sykesville -- have languished.

"The fine arts center at South Carroll doesn't lend itself to plays or mass meetings of students," said Stephen H. Guthrie, assistant superintendent of administration. "It's far less than what other schools have at this time."

School officials, including South Carroll Principal George Phillips and facilities director Raymond Prokop, point to recent upgrades -- such as $250,000 in improvements to the science labs, a new roof and a repaved parking lot -- as evidence that the school has not been neglected.

"They are getting a great education. However, the facilities are not up to where the others are," said Prokop, who is on the committee.

The fine arts center modernization, which is slated for completion in 2008 on the district's long-range capital improvement plan, has been estimated to cost more than $15 million. Meanwhile, school officials also have added the construction of a $39 million middle school in the southern area of the county.

The cost of building a new high school has been estimated at $50 million.

Among other issues, the committee must consider whether the school, which may not be modern enough to educate high schoolers, would be a good fit for middle school pupils.

While the core issue is whether South Carroll's outdated facilities are limiting students' educational experiences, the group also must consider the most feasible remedies, said Donald Pyles, director of middle schools.

"Building a new high school isn't always the solution," said Rhodes, who initially proposed converting the school to a middle school before she was elected to the board in 2002. "But I thought perhaps we could put all our eggs in one basket and come up with a solution to address all our needs."

After making the suggestion, she learned that the county is home to several middle schools that had once been high schools -- North Carroll in Hampstead, East Middle in Westminster, Sykesville Middle and Mount Airy Middle.

"We need to consider all the pros and cons," said Pyles, the committee chairman. "We're going about it piece by piece."

The committee includes school board member C. Scott Stone, the board's student representative, several parents and administrators, and the county's management and budget director, Ted Zaleski. A recommendation to the school board is expected in the spring.

"Sometimes when you're dealing with limited funds and other constraints ... and yet the demands keep marching on, you need to be creative," Rhodes said. "You have to think outside the box."


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