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Opening day nears with renovated schools, better technology in Baltimore County

Construction workers are putting finishing touches on three school construction projects in southwest Baltimore County, as families stow beach chairs and prepare get to the bus stops in two weeks.

"Leaving summer is bittersweet," J. Scott Palmer, principal of Westowne Elementary, said. "You like to relax, but we're also excited to get back in front of and working with students."

School starts Aug. 24 and teachers at Catonsville and Westowne elementary schools will report next week to begin setting up their new classrooms.

Construction on Catonsville, Westowne and Westchester elementary schools will provide more space, amenities and technology. Catonsville students are moving into a refurbished building less than a mile from the old Frederick Road schoolhouse.

Boundary changes also will mean more grade-school students will be attending different schools this fall. A combined 131 students from Halethorpe and Hillcrest elementary schools have been relocated to Catonsville Elementary, while 48 from Hillcrest have shifted to Westchester.

In a redistricting plan approved in March by the county school board, Westchester absorbs the southwestern part of Hillcrest, while the eastern part of Hillcrest moves to the new Catonsville Elementary. Catonsville also picks up students from the northern part of Halethorpe.

After the completion of the new Relay Elementary, expected to open next August, it will add students from Arbutus and Halethorpe grade schools.

Students in fourth or fifth grade can receive a waiver to stay at their current school — as can any younger siblings they have at that school — but transportation is not provided, according to school board policy.

And while some parts of the district are growing, school system projections show a decrease of 492 students in the area's 20 elementary schools by 2025 to 10,689, but still above the buildings' capacity of 9,919, as calculated by the state. The same projections show enrollment in the area's six middle schools up by 135 pupils and enrollment and the area's four high schools up by 762, to 6,062 students. Both are below the state-rated capacity of 6,308.

Baltimore County is adding teachers to handle an increase in enrollment in some districts and an expanded foreign language program in the elementary grades, and still has 117 teaching positions vacant. The county usually has fewer teaching positions open at this time, but spokesman Mychael Dickerson said the system is slightly behind because it is hiring more teachers this year. Substitute teachers will fill in until full-time teachers are on board.

Old is new again

Catonsville Elementary's new home is the former Bloomsbury Community Center.

A $28 million renovation project includes a 36,000-square-foot addition — and air conditioning.

"When we talked about that, there were cheers," Miller said.

Expediting the installation of air conditioning in county schools without it has been a contentious issue between state and local officials, with the governor and comptroller pushing for temporary cooling systems in some buildings and county leaders questioning the cost-effectiveness of the option.

At Catonsville, Miller enjoys the blend of the old and the new that the project provides.

"We keep the character of an older brick school building but everything inside is a 21st century learning environment," she said.

Improvements include a library media center in the center of the building, along with a science classroom for students to work on experiments and a state-of-the-art stage in the gym, Miller said.

Classrooms will be equipped with equipment such as projectors, document cameras and interactive whiteboards for teachers to deliver lessons in ways they previously could not, she said.

"It's very new for us because we were a school that didn't have a lot of technology," she said.

The school will have a capacity of 715 students, up from the old building's 405, Miller said. First-day enrollment is projected at 581 students.

At Westchester Elementary, a $5.4 million air-conditioned addition has been built, which includes 10 classrooms, two support offices, restrooms, storage space and closets for janitorial supplies. The school was built in 1998.

The addition increases the school's capacity from 499 to 699. Principal Phillip Byers said he expects 630 to 640 students on the first day. He said a fifth kindergarten class has been added to accommodate the growth. The other grades will still have four classes, he said.

"It's not just because of the redistricting, but because the community is changing and growing," Byers said. "New families are coming in."

At Westowne Elementary, teachers, students and parents are excited for the new $33.3 million building that is almost complete, said Palmer, who is entering his second year as principal. The school's capacity has increased from 482 to 650. He expects to open the school year with 579 students in the school.

The main office staff will be moving into the school Aug. 10, while staff will report Aug. 15 to prepare their new classrooms, Palmer said.

In addition to air conditioning, which wasn't in the former building, and a wireless system to handle the use of technology — all first through fifth grade students will have their own devices, he said —

each grade will have a common space that connects to each of the classrooms. And classrooms are equipped with audio systems that, when the teacher is wearing a microphone, will push sound to speakers surrounding the room.

"Even though someone will be in the back, you'll be able to hear the teacher as clear as the student in the front," he said.

The old building, which will be demolished after completion of the new school, opened in 1951 and was expanded in 1973.

Some daily schedules are shifting this year, as well.

At Arbutus Middle School, the schedule is changing to block scheduling. Instead of seven, 50-minute periods with the same classes every day, students will have four 90-minute periods and the school day will operate on an alternating a-day, b-day schedule. The schedule means students will take the same four classes one day — such as math, physics, music and English on the a-day — and another group of four the next b-day, alternating the schedules every other day.

The change will allow teachers to provide more in-depth and personalized instruction, Principal Michelle Feeney said.

Feeney, entering her seventh year as principal, sees more advantages with the longer class times. She worked with the PTA and online parent survey was conducted. She said parents were concerned about students sitting in class for an hour and a half, but in her mind, the longer time will allow them to be "up, active and doing."

"The only reason we kept doing it is we've always been doing it. It just doesn't make sense anymore as far as offering lessons that help students dig a little bit deeper and apply what they're learning," she said. "When you want to do more hands-on instruction and give students variety of experiences with content, you need the time to do it."

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this report.

Taking a test drive

County schools are trying a new way to get sixth and ninth graders better acclimated to their new schools.

Early Entry Day, scheduled for Monday, Aug. 22, will give students a taste of their days. Over the course of a half-day, students will be able to run through their schedules, navigate the buildings and meet teachers and counselors.

At Arbutus Middle School, with 840 enrolled, the sixth grade class will have more than 300 students coming from six feeder schools, according to Principal Michelle Feeney.

The day gives students a chance to better know each other and learn about their new — and bigger — school before the older students come in.

Feeney is looking forward to the day and said there are benefits of having it, including fewer distractions.

"When the entire school comes at once it can be a little bit more daunting for a sixth grader," she said. "I think for us it's nice to focus on the sixth grader."

Transportation will be provided for those students who will take buses to middle and high school.

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