Some students return to school in state-of-the-art buildings

West Towson, Violetville elementaries among new schools in city and Baltimore County

August 30, 2010|By Liz Bowie, Erica L. Green and Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

Some students got off the buses, their eyes filled with apprehension, and were guided into the soaring atrium of West Towson Elementary, a school so new it doesn't have a single scuffed floor. Others ran confidently along, calling out the name of their teacher and the location of their classroom.

The long-awaited first day of school arrived Monday as some students started the year in new state-of-the-art buildings like West Towson in Baltimore County.

The city opened its first new school building since 1998, Violetville Elementary in Southwest Baltimore. City and state leaders will celebrate the new building with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday.

And students and parents marked on Monday the rebirth of the old Walbrook High School campus in West Baltimore and renovations to Hammond elementary and middle schools in Howard County.

The heat made the morning feel like the beginning of another relaxed summer day, but for most metro area students — from sluggish high-schoolers to eager first-graders — it was the start of another school year. Carroll County schools reopen Tuesday ; Anne Arundel began the school year last week.

"They return with a great deal of optimism," said Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston as he toured McCormick Elementary on Monday morning. He said the county will be focusing this school year on developing students' skills to compete internationally.

Built to relieve the severe crowding at Towson-area elementary schools, the $22 million West Towson is modern, full of light and airy with a two-story atrium, wireless access and state-of-the-art technology in all the classrooms. There's even a roof garden to reduce storm-water runoff and keep the kindergarten rooms below cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, as well as low-flow plumbing fixtures that will reduce water usage by 40 percent in the 451-seat school.

"This is truly a next-generation school," said Berneatta Whitlock, the mother of kindergartener Ashley and fourth-grader Shayla, who was transferring from Rodgers Forge Elementary like many other students at West Towson. She said she was pleased that the county built an environmentally friendly school. "The principal is fantastic. I am so excited about the school."

As beautiful as the building is, the principal, Susan Hershfeld, said a school is only as good as its teachers. So she spent a year putting together the faculty and traveled to see all serious candidates teaching a lesson before making hires. "One of my goals was to have a very diverse staff," she said. So she has a mix of young teachers and experienced ones, as well as educators from different backgrounds.

William Pelton, a fourth-grader who transferred to West Towson from a Catholic school, watched it being built over the course of 14 months from his house around the corner and was excited, not apprehensive, as he walked in Monday morning, said his mother, Anne Pelton.

In Baltimore City, many schools opened with millions of dollars in facelifts to their buildings. Among the renovations were those made at the new Walbrook campus, once home to the long-troubled Walbrook High School that city schools CEO Andrés Alonso ordered closed two years ago.

The buildings underwent a two-year, $6 million renovation to welcome the new middle and high school students attending the Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy West and the Baltimore Civitas School, two schools undergoing transformations this year with the help of outside operators.

"There's been crazy talk that we close schools with no plans," Alonso said. "What we've done is come back with two extraordinary options for students and parents."

Bluford Drew Jemison is an all-male school for grades six through nine, with focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Civitas, which holds sixth through 11th grades and is coed, focuses on humanities and civic engagement. The two schools are housed on opposite sides of the campus and are managed by two different operators.

The once-dilapidated campus underwent renovations to include eight upgraded science rooms, a renovated library, 10 new computer and engineering classrooms, and a new gym floor. The schools had previously been operating classes in other city school buildings.

Alonso called the resurrection of the Walbrook campus a "renaissance in the neighborhood" and proof that "we're not giving up on any school in the city."

Many agreed that the renovations were a fresh start for students and the Walbrook community.

Dozetta Lewis, whose son is attending ninth grade at Bluford, said the students' new surroundings have given them more focus. Her son doesn't mind the dress code and haircuts he will have to maintain. He has taken to being called a "scholar" rather than a student. The old Walbrook, she said, is a thing of the past.

"It makes them feel good about going here," she said. "I think this is making history for Baltimore City. It's a brand-new start."

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