Brandon Lentz was apprehensive about attending Patterson Mill Middle School.
First, there was the size of the building: Would he be able to find his way around the 266,476-square-foot building?
And the middle school is housed in the same building as the high school: Were high school students really as mean as people said they were?
"I was more than a little intimidated my first day of school," said Brandon, 14, of Abingdon. "You see kids on television in high school giving younger kids swirlies" - putting their heads in toilets and flushing - "and stuffing them in their lockers. I didn't know what to expect."
But as his first year at the county's newest school comes to an end, Brandon said his fears have been alleviated. The high school-middle school collaboration succeeded.
On a recent morning, Brandon and other Patterson Mill Middle/High students shared stories of their first-year experiences.
Opened in the fall of 2007, the $50 million school enrolled 738 middle school students, and 444 ninth- and tenth-graders. The school boasts a mass communications lab with a radio station, a 1,400-square-foot television studio, an auditorium with a seating capacity of 910, a theater for drama class, a sculpture studio, a professional food lab, a clothing and fashion design lab, a technology lab and a pre-engineering program.
"Our school is packed full of the latest technology," said principal Wayne Thibeault. "And all of our programs are student-driven. We want our students to be practitioners of the technology. We're preparing them for the life they will have in the 21st century."
The students named state-of-the-art technology, early preparation for college and increased cultural experiences as some of the perks of attending the school.
Chase Phillips is impressed with the school's technology. Last year, he attended Bel Air Middle School, where technology was limited, he said.
"At Bel Air Middle, there were mobile labs and two classes with technology," said Chase, 14, of Bel Air. "You didn't get a feel for technology at that school. I have learned a lot more here, with all this technology."
Technology extends beyond the computers and laptops. Some classrooms contain touch-controlled interactive whiteboards that work with a projector and a computer. The music lab contains 15 stations equipped with Yamaha keyboards and computers with the Sibelius Music Notation Software that allows students to write, play, print and publish music notation.
In the world languages classroom, students are taught French, Spanish or German using a program in which headphones are worn, to enable students to speak to one another without interference from outside noises.
The program has helped improve student grades, said Janet Breen, the world languages teacher at the school. "This program gives me an opportunity to listen to the kid's progress," Breen said. "It allows me to record their discussions weekly or bi-weekly and then let them hear it."
In Marge Phillips' musical theater class, students learn to use light boards. In the television studio, students tape, record and edit the school's morning news show.
The advanced technology is giving the students an early look at college learning, said Matthew Golczewski, 14, of Bel Air. "In every class, we are learning how to use some kind of technology," the eighth-grader said. "Some of the technology we use isn't even in some colleges yet. I think we're being well prepared."
As part of community outreach efforts, the students are being exposed to cultural arts at the school, Thibeault said. Next year the school will host performances by the U.S. Army Band, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and various local groups such as the Bay Country Gentlemen, and ballet and dance troupes.
"We want the school to be the hub of the community," Thibeault said. "And we want to be a part of the cultural arts scene." Recently, the Harford Ballet Company performed in the school's auditorium.
There are numerous benefits in the collaboration, Thibeault said. "Allowing performances such as this at the school gives the students a chance to see things going on out in the community," he said. "But most importantly, it gives the children a chance to learn performance behavior."
Rachel Sharrow said she is excited about cultural opportunities.
"In elementary school, they bring in the reptile man, and then in middle school, you get nothing. At Patterson Mill, we get to see all kinds of shows, and I really like that. It keeps school fun," she said.
The new technology and the size of the school were overwhelming at first, said Taylor Webb of Abingdon. She offered tips for next year's sixth-graders.
"If you don't know where to go, ask," said Taylor, 11, a sixth-grader. "And use the map of the school on the back of the agenda book."
Some things at the school aren't so easy to cope with, said Brandon Lentz. The eighth-graders missed the opportunity to be the oldest in their school.