Despite crowding, Hillcrest Elementary School students, staff excited about new school year

Mike Curry, a fourth-grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School, was bubbling with excitement in anticipation of the students' arrival on the first day.

"It's a brand new year," Curry said. "This is the one job where every year is a fresh start."

Curry had planned a busy day for his students, with activities ranging from learning classroom procedures to practicing how to walk in the hallways as a class.

"Because it's the first day, we'll have a lot of housekeeping type stuff," Curry said. "They have to be re-taught everything."

As the clock struck 8:40 a.m. Monday, a throng of students and parents poured into Hillcrest on Frederick Road, marking the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year.

The crowd had been slowly growing since the first eager families began to arrive around 8:15 a.m. Aug. 26.

By the time the school's doors were opened, the mass had spilled into the parking lot adjacent to the building.

Outside, Ashley Cunningham and her husband, Andrew Laughlin, waited at the school's front doors with their son Arlo Laughlin.

The family recently moved to Catonsville from Violetville, so Monday not only marked the 7-year-old's first day of first grade, but his first day of classes at Hillcrest.

"We're really excited for him," Cunningham said. "We just moved into the neighborhood."

Bashfully hiding behind his mother while waiting to go inside, Arlo did manage to spend some time talking with two other boys.

He also provided a quick answer for what he predicted would be his favorite parts of school. "Lunchtime and reading," he said.

Cunningham said the family had decided to move to Catonsville specifically so Arlo could attend school at Hillcrest.

She said the couple as a number of friends in the area and that the school came highly recommended.

"I've just heard so many great things," she said. "They [our friends] can't say enough good things about Hillcrest."

Becky Stein had walked to school that morning with her sons: 7-year-old Sam and 9-year-old Jack.

Before going inside, she took multiple photos of the boys posing in front of the Hillcrest announcement sign on Frederick Road, a tradition she said they have followed every year the boys have been in school.

"Just to see how big they are," she said with tears in her eyes.

The boys said they were looking forward to starting a new year.

"I'm kind of nervous," Sam said.

Jack said he was also a little nervous, but was looking forward to having no homework and meeting his teacher that day.

"Getting to see my friends," is his favorite part of a new year, Sam said.

When students arrived Monday, they were greeted by teachers also pumped up for a new year.

"It's exciting," Hillcrest Principal Teresa McVey said last week. "Every year, you think you've thought of everything and everything is in place, but every year something happens where you think, 'Wow, I didn't think of that.'

"I walk through the building quite a bit [in the summer], and make lists, check lists," she said.

Hillcrest begins the 2013-2014 school year with an additional two new portable classrooms installed over the summer.

Its increasing enrollment has meant the schedule of two Back-to-School nights instead of one. The last time that happened at the school was more than 15 years ago.

At this time last year, the school was 149 students above the building's state allocated capacity.

With the inclusion of county funding for 500 new elementary seats in Catonsville in the county executive's fiscal year 2014 budget, McVey and her staff are hoping for some relief in the coming years.

"Staff here are used to handling large enrollment," McVey said. "All of the strategies that we've used in the past and have been successful are still in place.

"I'd like to hear what the proposals are," she said of the location for the new 500 seats. "I think, at this point, they have a couple models they want to share and I think at this point we need to continue to collaborate and share.

"[Superintendent] Dr. [Dallas] Dance has been very responsive to Hillcrest and to our needs," McVey said. "He's provided sufficient staffing and has provided sufficient space for us.

"We're prepared, we're ready," she said. "I'm not going to say we've seen everything, but we've seen a lot."

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