After months of controversy surrounding the site selection of Baltimore County's new elementary school in Mays Chapel, the school system on Thursday began the process of assembling the school's leadership team.
Stephen Coco, who was selected last month to be the school's first principal, plans to involve everyone — even the school's fiercest opponents — in building a strong community at the schoolhouse built on a former community park.
"Folks are passionate about their communities, so I understand the emotion that went into the situation surrounding the construction or the site of the school," Coco said. "Going forward, I believe it's just a great opportunity to provide an instructional environment for students that is world class.
"It's going to be important that we get input and feedback from everybody in the surrounding community, as well as the families that are going to be joining us," he said.
The school at Mays Chapel has been the center of a community controversy for well over a year, culminating with a shouting match between protesters and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz at the school's groundbreaking on Friday, April 26.
Coco said he saw the protests on the news, and understood the passion and commitment of the Mays Chapel Community.
"I just think it's an opportunity to capture that energy that's there," he said. "I think energy is positive, and we have to make sure we harness that energy to build a world-class environment for students."
The school, which is scheduled to be completed by August 2014, is set to alleviate overcrowding at a set of York Road corridor elementary schools, though Coco said the process of redrawing school boundary lines would not begin until later in the construction process.
"I'm confident that Steve is the best person to bring our vision for Mays Chapel to reality," BCPS Superintendent Dallas Dance said in a statement. "He's served on a team that successfully opened a new elementary school, and is prepared to work with community and parent stakeholders to establish a framework for making the school great."
Coco, a 17-year veteran of Baltimore County schools, began as a fourth-grade teacher at Sparks Elementary, Westchester Elementary in Catonsville, and Church Lane Elementary in Randallstown. Once he left the classroom, he spent a year as a mentor, and went on to be assistant principal at Bedford Elementary in Pikesville and Hernwood Elementary in Randallstown before moving to Cedarmere Elementary six years ago.
Coco said everything — from his time in the classroom to his own children's education — is a learning experience for him. But the most important education he'll get will be from a fellow principal who was in his shoes five years ago.
Beginning in July, Coco will work out of West Towson Elementary — Baltimore County's newest elementary school — to work alongside Sue Hershfeld, the principal who built that school community before it opened in 2010.
Hershfeld said she had a similar first thought on the daunting process Coco will soon face.
"He said, "I guess there's no manual for doing this?'" Hershfeld said. "I asked the exact same question — 'Where's the manual?'"
Instead, Hershfeld will be his reference, just as Vincent Farms Elementary's founding principal Anne Gold was for her.
"It doesn't necessarily mean he should do things the same way — he shouldn't — but it gives him a place to start with the work he has to do," she said
There's plenty of minutiae to handle, such as ensuring books and desks are ordered, but Hershfeld said two particular aspects of the process are most rewarding.
She said she most enjoyed meeting the children and crafting a staff based on her own standards.
"This is my third school for which I've served as principal and I loved each of my schools, but to be able to build a school literally from the ground up in terms of the staff, culture, and beliefs systems was just the most rewarding experience I've ever had in 39 years of teaching and working in schools," Hershfeld said.
Aside from learning alongside Hershfeld, Coco says the placement at West Towson will allow him to better stay connected to a school community while his is built.
"I look forward to, just as importantly, making sure that I keep my finger on the pulse of what's current, what's new, and the upcoming changes we'll be working through next year in the school system," he said.
Once he closes out the year at Cedarmere, Coco said he's excited for what's to come.
"Is it going to be different than what I'm typically used to doing, running a typical schoolhouse?" he said. "Absolutely, but that's what's so motivating to me. We have one opportunity to open this school, and the students are the cornerstone of this community. It's our job to get it right the first time for them."