A new school, a new year, a new outlook

Due to crowding and construction, kids to be greeted by change at their return

August 26, 2007|By Madison Park | Madison Park,Sun reporter

When school opens tomorrow, fifth-graders from Prospect Mill Elementary School will take their seats in middle school.

And it's not because they skipped a grade.

With capacity at 140 percent, Prospect Mill will send its fifth-graders - 165 students - to Southampton Middle School to relieve crowding.

The middle school's classrooms opened up after some of its students were moved to the new Patterson Mill Middle/High School.

The opening of the $70 million school complex and an earlier schedule for high-schoolers are among the changes awaiting the 40,000 students in Harford County public schools, when the 2007-2008 school year gets under way tomorrow.

The Prospect Mill fifth-graders will have a "school within a school" and won't mingle with the Southampton students, said Pat Skebeck, Harford County's executive director of elementary school education.

A portion of the Southampton building, made up of eight classrooms, will be devoted solely to the fifth-graders and will be off-limits to middle school students. Seven Prospect Mill teachers, one secretary and an assistant principal will work there. Subjects such as physical education, music and art will be taught by visiting Prospect Mill teachers.

"Prospect Mill is 294 kids over capacity," Skebeck said. "Until we can get a new school built, we were at a point where we couldn't put additional [students in portable classrooms]."

Prospect Mill fifth-graders will be at Southampton for the next several years, until Vale Road Elementary School is constructed. The projected completion date for that school is 2009 or 2010.

"It's disappointing, what's happening," said Kelli Clawson, a Prospect Mills parent. "Fifth grade is like the senior year in high school, but for elementary school. They have lots of cool things that go on that year. It's like being big man on campus; instead, they'll be the little kids in the middle school."

Harford County schools have done this before. Fifth-graders from Bakerfield, Meadowvale and Roye-Williams elementaries have relocated to other locations during renovations and construction projects, Skebeck said.

"When you take 165 youngsters out of there, that reduces capacity and strain on the main building," Skebeck said.

Janet Noone, a Prospect Mill parent who has a son in third grade, is relieved that the school will be less crowded.

"They have to sit in lines outside the bathrooms, because there's not enough bathrooms to service that many kids," she said. "They line up and waste time. That's frustrating. And mostly common areas like the lunchrooms are very crowded."

Prospect Mill still will use all 10 portables and will be at 115 percent of capacity. Last year, the overcrowding got so bad that some staff used closets for office space.

"Every nook and cranny was filled with students and instructors," said Principal Bud Beehler III. "This allows a little bit more flexibility and a welcome relief for boys and girls and staff."

The fifth-graders will have their own assemblies at Southampton and occasionally will bus back to Prospect Mill for special activities, Beehler said.

Although Noone knows that her son, Jason, will eventually be sent to Southampton as a fifth-grader, she said she's glad that the elementary school won't be as crowded anymore.

"At least they did something," she said. "As long as they keep the long-term solutions going with Vale Road. It's better than staying at the elementary school with that level of overcrowding."

Another highlight will be the much anticipated opening of the Patterson Mill Middle/High School complex in Bel Air.

Most of its August public tour dates had been canceled because of delays in construction. The only exception was Friday's open house, when the lobby of the county's first new high school in nearly three decades echoed with the voices of teachers and questions from incoming students and their parents.

"The smiles and the energy are outstanding," said Thomas Fidler, school board president.

Tomorrow, the school will welcome its 1,200 students.

The $70 million school complex boasts a mass communications lab with a radio station, a TV studio, professional food labs, a child development center, a clothing design lab and other features. The school has Wi-Fi connection throughout the building, with LCD projectors and a state-of-the-art media center.

"The technology is not the end-all, be-all, but it's giving tools for the teachers and students," said Patterson Mill Principal Wayne Thibeault.

Patterson Mill parent Kim Manning gushed about the new facility.

"There is air conditioning, new computers, things that work," she said.

The school is mostly ready, except for the auditorium, said Don Morrison, the county schools spokesman. The 910-seat auditorium will not be completed by the first day of school, but classrooms and other necessities will be ready, Morrison said.

The 266,136-square-foot school rests on 79 acres in Bel Air.

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