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Harford to open $26 million elementary to ease crowding in Bel Air schools

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Harford County plans to open its first new elementary school in about a decade this week to ease crowding throughout the Bel Air area.

Red Pump Elementary School expects about 600 students at the $26 million project, built north of the county seat. Harford County's elementary schools were redistricted this year and now most are below capacity. Most children are transferring from four elementaries in the Bel Air area.

The first day of school Monday in Harford as well as Baltimore City and Howard and Baltimore counties was postponed because of Hurricane Irene. Carroll County was set to start classes Tuesday.

When the children arrive at the school on Red Pump Road, they will be welcomed by three playgrounds, a computer lab and a plethora of electronic equipment, a TV studio that will broadcast daily, a gym large enough for two basketball games at a time and a media center with a sun-drenched storytelling area.

Several landscaped courtyards are awash now in black-eyed Susans and plantings native to Maryland, and the 23-acre site offers an outdoor classroom.

"This school was truly designed with children in mind," Blaine Hawley, Red Pump's principal, said. "The architects got it all right, right here."

Hawley interviewed about 300 teachers on a voluntary transfer list as she chose a faculty of nearly 50. Red Pump opens with about 100 students less than its 700-seat capacity; there are five classes at most grade levels.

The changes and the new building helped eliminate portables and allowed Prospect Mill's fifth-graders to return to their home classrooms. Crowding had forced them to spend the past few years at a wing at South Hampton Middle. Another new elementary is planned but not funded on a site south of Bel Air.

Many neighbors have already taken advantage of the playgrounds and the athletic fields on the grounds that the school is sharing with the county recreation and parks department.

"My kids have been peeking in the windows, riding bikes and scooters and trying out the rope climb on the intermediate playground," said Karyn Senker, whose third-grader, Brandon, is transferring from Forest Lakes Elementary, while his brother Andrew is entering first grade. "They are really excited to start at the new school. Andrew has learned to ride his two-wheeler on the vacant parking lot here."

Hawley, who is marking her 27th year in education, the last 20 of which have been in Harford County, welcomed the early visitors.

"We want children on the playgrounds," she said. "We are part of this community."

She was named principal long before the walls went up and has overseen countless details since moving from the principal's job at Meadowvale Elementary.

"I watched its creation," she said of the building.

Her enthusiasm for her new surroundings is shared by a staff of about 70. They have all become accustomed to the "Wows" uttered by newcomers to the school.

"I love the technology, the colors, everything and everybody," said Kelly Lembach, first-grade teacher.

Red Pump Elementary includes slightly more than 100,000 square feet in three wings that fan out from a central core of the one-story brick building. The core areas are red, while the wings are color-coded to help the newcomers navigate their surroundings. Each wing has its own staff planning room and a clerestory common area, equipped with an interactive white board and TV, and is large enough to accommodate an entire grade level.

The art teachers have painted murals, including one in the lobby that reads "History begins with me at Red Pump Elementary." The music instructors are writing the school song.

The building is geared to high tech, with a multitiered computer lab, and constructed with several environmentally sound initiatives such as automatic sinks in the bathrooms. Each teacher has a mobile laptop and every classroom is outfitted with four student computers.

While the incoming students were still enrolled at other schools, Hawley met with them, showing them slides detailing the progress of construction and asking for their input on a mascot. They suggested a dinosaur, road runner and princess, until she shifted their focus to red. They made the connection between firetrucks and Dalmatians and chose the spotted pup. There will soon be a naming contest.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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