Highlands School makes its move into a bigger space

Kids' minds have room to grow in new building

October 07, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to the Sun

When Nathan Temple entered for the first time, he felt like he was in a giant maze. The hallways at his new school were lined with dozens of doors, and just as many twists and turns.

"It was really weird at first," the Highlands School fifth-grader said. "I had to walk around the building a few times before I could find my way around."

That's a predictable reaction from a 10-year-old student in a brand-new school. At the start of the academic year, the Highlands School, a private school that offers remedial education services, moved into a 40,000-square- foot building on the outskirts of Bel Air that is 10 times bigger than the previous school, a 100-year-old structure in Street.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about the Highlands School in the Oct. 7 edition of the Harford County section included a photo caption that incorrectly identified the donor of jockey silks from the winner of the 1983 Preakness. The donor was J. William Boniface, general manager of Bonita Farms.

And, after the first month of the school year, the teachers and students are better oriented and are making a smooth adjustment to the expanded facility, administrators say.

"When the children come to school in the morning, there is almost an indescribable excitement," said Patricia A. Bonney, the executive director of the school.

The school serves children in kindergarten through eighth grade who have learning disabilities. The school opened in 1996 with six students and quickly outgrew the building in Street. Enrollment is now 71.

The school was renamed in the fall as the Highlands School at the James T. and Virginia M. Dresher Campus, to acknowledge a Harford County couple who were the major donors to the project.

The objective at the school is to develop students' skills so they can return to a traditional classroom setting within two to three years, said Beth Maahs-Hoagberg, one of the school's founders. She said the Highlands is the only private remedial school in Maryland with that stated goal.

Yet despite the expected turnover of students, the school outgrew the old space. When the school first opened, teachers didn't have permanent classrooms and hauled their instructional materials around on carts.

Teacher Kimberly Kujala remembers pushing the carts all too well. The spaciousness of the new building has been liberating for teachers and students alike.

"It's nice to have a school where the children can leave the classroom and explore," Kujala said. "The distractions in the old building were distracting for everyone. When my children leave for small-group or other instruction, my classroom is quiet, and I can prepare my lesson plans in my room."

Charlotte Albro noticed the difference in the noise level the moment she stepped in the new building. Her 8-year-old son, Conor, started at the school last year, and at times the level of activity in the classrooms made it hard for the children to focus, she said.

"The children needed a place that was less distracting to learn," said Albro, a Bel Air resident.

And as student enrollment at the school increased, the environment became less conducive to education, Maahs-Hoagberg said.

"The lack of space created added challenges," she said.

Even the students are appreciating the benefits of the new building.

"In the old school, there was always something going on in the room around us," said Gabrielle Schmidt, a 10-year-old from White Hall. "Now I don't have to wait as long to be called on when I have a question."

The new facility comprises the main building and athletic fields, and cost about $9.5 million, Bonney said. The money is being raised through a capital campaign that began in 2002. School officials said they hope to have the building and land paid for within five years, she said.

Additional funds will be raised to endow a foundation that will provide scholarships for families who cannot afford the school's $24,500 annual tuition.

Staff input was sought in the planning of the new building, and many of the 51 members said they wanted plenty of natural light, Bonney said. Light monitors that shine natural light into the hallways and classrooms were installed, she said.

The building has 22 small rooms where children in groups of two or three go for individualized instruction. There are separate classrooms for media, art and music, as well as a testing room, a speech pathology center, occupational and physical therapy rooms, and a gymnasium with a full basketball court and a performing arts stage.

The school also has a community outreach center for literacy that is open to the public and will include a tutoring center and professional development opportunities for teachers.

Teachers from public and other private schools will be invited to attend workshops at the school, Maahs-Hoagberg said.

And in the coming months, the pupils will have access to four "life skills" labs including a bank, school store, shop class and a studio.

Although he was a little overwhelmed at first, Nathan quickly became excited about the new school.

"The gym is as big as the entire old school," he said. "And it's so much neater to do music in a room that has a real piano, and not just [an electronic] keyboard."

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