Cradlerock Elementary School and Lake Elkhorn Middle School opened their doors for the first time Tuesday, Aug. 30, and with it came a sense of enthusiasm and purpose.

"We can't tell you how excited we are," Lake Elkhorn Principal Jennifer Peduzzi said. "We're starting new traditions, with new colors, a new mascot and there's a sense of pride around that."

Originally named Dasher Green Elementary School and Owen Brown Middle School and housed in one building, on Cradlerock Way, in Columbia, the two schools became Cradlerock School in the 2003-2004 academic year as a pilot program to see if a combined K-8 model could improve student achievement.

"We saw the model as a way to support instruction and boost student achievement," said Patti Caplan, director of public relations for the Howard County Public School System. "The intention was to look at this and see if the configuration provided the results we were looking for as far as student achievement."


Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

However, at the five-year mark, Caplan said an evaluation showed there was no significant change that could be attributed to the K-8 configuration.

"Over the years, it appeared we were not getting the results we had really hoped to see," Caplan said. "While there were some real positives, there were things the staff felt weren't working as well as they could."

Caplan said the school system "went through the process with the community to consider the options following the 2009-2010 year" and "the community overwhelmingly supported the return to two schools. So for the last year, we basically assigned a principal to Cradlerock Elementary School (Jason McCoy) and added a middle school principal (Peduzzi). The two have been working for the last year to split the schools in terms of administrations, and their shared support staff and facilities."

Caplan said the community and students were given options on deciding what to name the two schools. Elementary students, she said, wanted to maintain the Cradlerock name, while the middle school students and parents wanted a fresh start.

McCoy said he's been working with Peduzzi to address some logistical issues associated with two schools under one roof, and simultaneously, concentrating on his elementary school.

"We're continuing our focus on improving instruction and showing we have a safe, nurturing environment," McCoy said. "We have an opportunity to improve and bring about positive change; and intensify our focus because we are a smaller community now. We're looking at really a changing of culture, focusing more on being an elementary school like our counterparts in the rest of the system.

"Now that we're a true comprehensive elementary school, we're looking at the structures, practices and processes we have in place be more aligned with elementary schools; that's been a shift from the K-8 model," he said

Cradlerock also has a new vision, based on relations, outstanding instruction, collaboration and knowledge (ROCK), which is also the name of the new school's mascot, a bulldog.

"We're increasing our collaborative planning, tapping into all the expertise in our building and reaching out to supports at the county level," McCoy said.

Peduzzi said, "When I was in the K-8 model, I saw a real sense of community, and we want to carry that on. Many of our students have been together since kindergarten. But now we can be more focused on the middle-school child."

She added: "We're aligning our school, staff and curriculum to a secondary model, and we're able to have leadership teams that are really focused on making decisions to prepare (students) for high school."

It's that distinction between the two schools the community seems to appreciate.

Wendy Newton, the Cradlerock Elementary PTA president, said she and her board are excited about the separate elementary school.

"We're looking forward to it because I was on the board last year and being able to carry out things for more than 1,000 students makes it harder, and the diversity of it makes involvement of parents hard," Newton said in reference to the activities and the supplies the PTA tried to provide to a wide range of students and faculty. "We're excited about the split because it left us to really focus on our audience and provide activities for families that are age-appropriate."

She added: "I think it's going to be especially good for the middle school because it's driven by pre-teens and teenagers. … With (the schools) combined, it just doubled the amount of events we had to do. We're really excited to have the opportunity to rethink how we do things and remake ourselves. We think this is a great opportunity for us."

"I think it's too early to know how the split will go," said Joanna Aranda, of Columbia, whose daughter Samantha, 7, is in the second grade. "But I think their focus more on being an elementary school and giving (the students) more fun, elementary school things to do that you really can't do with the middle schoolers" will be a positive result from the school's reconfiguration.

Caplan said the focus for the last year has been developing strategies "for ensuring the instruction was exactly where we needed it to be" at both schools.

"There were good things that came out of the K-8 configuration, as far as coordination and collaboration between the upper and lower grades," Caplan said. "Staff were working together and making sure information was shared as the students moved (between grades). The positive things that have benefited students and staff are going to stay.

"Hopefully, students won't notice anything that much different as far as their day-to-day operations. What we do hope is that as a result of all the work that's gone on is that we will begin to see some real movement in student performance."