By the end of 2014, it is believed that Carroll County Public Schools will be the first school district in the state to eliminate all of its open-space classrooms. Teachers are already raving about the results.
For 16 years, Amy Durdon said she constantly worried about her students at Robert Moton Elementary School being too loud during a group activity.
"As a teacher, you want kids to talk and collaborate on projects," Durdon said. "They learn so much working together."
But during her tenure at Robert Moton in Westminster, Durdon and her fellow teachers have been grouped into pods of four classrooms, known as open-space classrooms. It's a classroom design that dates back to the 1970s.
Teachers have used bookshelves and rolling carts to provide partitions to their classroom areas in the past. But the sound of one class engaged in an activity could still be heard about 15 feet away by another class, making it difficult for students to concentrate.
For most teachers at Robert Moton, the days of creating makeshift walls are over.
The school is nearing completion of a project to eliminate its open-space classrooms, making it the fourth school in the county to do so.
After starting the school year in an open-space classroom, Durdon moved into a recently finished classroom in May and said the change has been wonderful.
"These kids aren't distracted by all of the outside noises at all, they are able to concentrate more," she said.
The school system is nearing the end of a seven-year process to eliminate all open-space classrooms within five schools in the county.
Since 2007, Carrolltowne Elementary, Northwest Middle, and Westminster Elementary have eliminated open-space classrooms.
Robert Moton is expected to complete its transition in November, and Eldersburg Elementary is scheduled to begin the process this month and complete construction by November 2014.
The elimination of open-space classroooms began as a local initative between the Carroll County Board of Education and the Board of County Commissioners, according to Ray Prokop, Carroll County Public Schools Facilities Director.
The commissioners allocated $8 million in fiscal 2008 to complete the enclosing of open-space classrooms in three schools, Prokop said.
But the school system was then able to secure state funding, allowing CCPS to convert all five open-space schools to traditional classroom buildings, he said.
The total cost to enclose these classrooms will be between $14.5 million to $15 million, with about $7 million coming from the state, Prokop said.
When Carroll finishes the project next year, it is believed the school system will be the first in the state to eliminate the old classroom design, according to David Lever, executive director of Maryland Public School Construction Program.
"It's quite an accomplishment and they should be congratulated for carrying this out," he said.
Lever said his department has surveyed every school district on how many open-space classrooms they have, but have not yet heard back from each district.
Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Calvert counties also have moved toward eliminating open-space classrooms in recent years, according to Lever.
Lever said there is a general agreement across the state that open-space classrooms are not "optimal learning environments."
He said their elimination is more about finance. "It's not that this isn't considered important, it's just that prioritization is what we do all the time," he said.
The enclosure projects do more than minimize distractions for students and teachers.
Projects in Carroll also include technology upgrades, such as LCD projectors, installation of lockers, and modifications to heating and air conditioning units.
Schools also receive additional upgrades specific to the building with the enclosure projects.
"It does come with extra benefits," assistant superintendent of instruction Steve Johnson said.
Johnson, who was the principal at Northwest Middle School when it began the enclosure project, said some teachers were initially opposed to enclosing the classrooms. But, he said, that quickly changed.
"After the walls went up, people were thrilled," he said. "It's a completely different learning environment. You can't help but think it's going to help kids concentrate."
Robert Moton principal Darryl Robbins said teachers "absolutely love" the new classroom design. "It has been a life-changer for us," he said.
Robbins said other benefits are safety and a classroom culture with lockers for students. He also thinks it has had an impact on assessment scores, citing that students' math and reading scores have improved this year.
"I can only think that having enclosed classrooms has been beneficial to our school culture and assessment results," he said.