Hillcrest Elementary hosts town hall in Catonsville

Technology changes top parents concerns

Having students as young as kindergarten immersed in today's new technology every day topped the list of concerns Hillcrest Elementary School parents brought the school's new principal during Tuesday evening's town hall-style meeting at the Catonsville school.

Organized by the school's PTA, the meeting gave parents the opportunity to have Principal Douglas Elmendorf address their questions and concerns ahead of the Aug. 24 start of the school year.

As part of the school system's plan to incorporate more 21st-century, technology-driven, learning in Baltimore County classrooms, Hillcrest will receive laptop computers for every student in first, second and third grade beginning this fall.

Each morning, the student will pick up his or her assigned laptop and will use the device throughout the day.

Many parents wanted to know what kind of effect the arrival of the computers and their steady usage will have on their children.

Although the computers will be an important part of students' learning this year, Elmendorf told parents, there will still be plenty of opportunity for kids to engage in traditional elementary school activities.

"I have four kids at home and I don't want any of them to be on the computer too long," said Elmendorf, a parent of an elementary school student, twins in middle school and a high school student. "We still value a lot of hands-on, manipulative creativity."

In addition to the laptops, the school is also getting a 3-D printer for students to experiment with, Elmendorf said, and a Maker's Lab, where students can use their creativity to build and design things.

"I'm excited to see this happen at Hillcrest," Elmendorf said of the incorporation of the technology into learning at Hillcrest.

At Chase Elementary in Middle River, he supervised one of the county's first implementations of the county's computers for students program.

Elmendorf began the meeting by telling the attendees about his background, which included four years as principal at Chase Elementary, one of 10 "Lighthouse" schools the county designated to lead its pilot computer program.

He told parents about the changes they can expect to see in the coming days, beginning with a series of meetings concerning the redistricting process in the southwest area beginning in mid-September.

PTA President James Kitchel, Hillcrest teacher Erika Herman and Hillcrest parent Donna Knutson have been nominated to represent the school at the meetings with county school officials, Elmendorf said, adding that he will also be present.

The redistricting is the result of the county's construction of three new, larger, elementary schools, Catonsville, Relay and Westowne, and the 200-seat expansion of a fourth, Westchester Elementary, in the southwest area.

Elmendorf told parents he will also launch what he called a "bucket initiative," when students arrive for the new school year at Hillcrest.

Based on the popular children's book, "Have You Filled a Bucket Today?", Elmendorf said the program will encourage students to behave both in the classroom and with each other.

The theme, he said, is to address one of the concerns he heard from many parents via an electronic survey he sent out earlier in the summer: that noise is a problem in the halls and in the cafeteria of the school.

In order to address an odor problem originating from the library, Elmendorf told attendees he had the room's carpet ripped out and replaced with tile. One hundred boxes of old books were also removed from the library and replaced with thousands of dollars worth of new books, he said.

Students will also see a new circulation desk, television monitor and learning area in the library, he said.

When the floor opened for questions from the audience of more than 40 parents, guardians and community members, many asked about whether they would be able to see their children's up-to-date grades online on a regular basis.

Baltimore County Public Schools has mandated that teachers make grades available online at minimum every two weeks, Elmendorf said, but staff and school administrators at Hillcrest are still ironing out their own policy on how many grades should be available.

Parents want to see as many grades as possible, but teachers must also be given flexibility in adapting to some of the changes taking place in the school, he said.

In regard to another issue involving flexibility for teachers, Elmendorf reiterated that he wants to allow teachers some independence when one parent asked about forms of punishment — specifically, whether students who misbehave may be punished by being excluded from recess time.

"I'm a school leader who wants to give the teachers some autonomy and let them make some decisions on their own," he said.

However, he added, as a new principal, he wants to spend some time observing the school's operation before making any major changes.

"Let's see what it looks like here first," he said he told teachers in a meeting earlier in the day when they asked about specific practices at Hillcrest. "I don't want to jump to solutions to a problem that I haven't even seen yet."

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