Stephen Coco

Stephen Coco (August 19, 2014)

Stephen Coco opened his Twitter account last October. On it, he posted meetings, updates and photographs of the future Mays Chapel Elementary School. Coco, its first principal, couldn't be more thrilled about the new Baltimore County Public School. He wants the community to feel the same way.

Coco's goal was to give the school an identity and to involve parents and students in its formation. "I wanted to brand the school and to build a community around it," Coco, an 18-year veteran of Baltimore County Public Schools and former principal of Cedarmere Elementary School in Reisterstown, said of his flow of tweets.

He appears to have succeeded. "We have one chance to open a new school on the first day," he said. "I can't begin to describe the excitement in the community."

Mays Chapel Elementary School, 1225 Roundwood Road, is enrolling about 600 students out of a 700-student capacity in grades pre-Kindergarten through fifth. The school dates to 2012 when BCPS sought a way to relieve overcrowding in the York Road corridor elementary schools.

But the future school ran into community opposition over its location on a public park and the redistricting of students. Eventually, after a series of contentious meetings, the school board voted to draw students from four local elementary schools: Pinewood, Pot Spring, Warren and Padonia.

A school boundary committee essentially went street by street to determine the boundaries and student composition, said Coco, with the largest contingent, 200 students, coming from Pot Spring.

As school construction began, Coco embarked on his own campaign, the Twitter account his first step on a bridge over troubled waters. Since then, he has talked with local community leaders, built relationships with local businesses and held networking events for parents to meet each other.

Over the spring, he and his staff met with students and parents in each grade. In July, an ice cream social at a local park attracted 250 students, parents and staff. He and the staff got on a school bus and toured every neighborhood within their boundary.

"Parents came out and waved to us," said Coco, who also heard from parents that they'd signed up for Twitter just so they could get his tweets. At last count, he had 278 followers on what had morphed into a Mays Chapel Elementary School account.

Three weeks before Mays Chapel opened, Coco is working out of a temporary office in a nearby middle school. He had yet to set foot inside Mays Chapel, which is still considered a construction zone. He wears a vibrant turquoise T-shirt emblazed with the Mays Chapel Elementary School logo, an unwitting reflection of his energy and enthusiasm.

"The students chose the color. That was their decision," he said, along with the school mascot, the always-popular yellow Labrador.

Mays Chapel, a 94,000 square foot building whose construction cost $24 million, is the latest in modern design and technology. The two-story, 96,000-square foot structure is certified LEED Silver. At student capacity there are five classrooms for every grade. The classrooms have flexible walls whose configurations can be moved to suit the situation. It has an enhanced security system. There is a single pre-K class, with morning and afternoon sessions.

Coco talks about other aspects of the school. It is a Lighthouse School, meaning that it joins 10 other BCPS in creating a digital environment. Every student receives a device like a laptop computer; students, parents and teachers have 24/7 access to the curriculum.

That reminds Coco of an important feature of the new school. "When I went through the process of interviewing for staff, people said, 'You must be looking for high-tech people, people who know technology,'" he related.

But he wasn't or, put another way, that wasn't his priority.

"I wanted people who love children, who are committed and dedicated professionals and who have a willingness to learn," said Coco, who will have a staff of 47 to meet students on the first day of school.

One of them is Jen Guanti, a reading specialist, who credits Coco with encouraging staff cohesiveness and involving them in instructional planning.

"The school is technology based but the emphasis is on good teaching," she said.

As for Coco, he intends to create an environment where students feel safe, learn something new and learn how to work with each other.

"I want an environment where children are excited to come to school every day," he said. "I want an environment where they take what they know and apply it to new situations."