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Balter acclimating students, parents, staff to new Ducketts Lane Elementary

By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

4:46 PM EDT, August 29, 2013

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Most of the planning that went into the new Ducketts Lane Elementary School came courtesy of grown-ups, but Principal Heidi Balter let students come up with a finishing touch: the school mascot.

For those assuming the kids would simply take their cue from the first four letters of the school's name, think again.

"It's not a duck. It's an owl, because we make wise choices here at Ducketts Lane," said Balter, principal of Howard County public schools' 41st elementary school, which welcomed its first enrollees when classes convened Monday.

Balter is trying to infuse identity into the Elkridge school, adorning walls with photos of students and filling shelves with stuffed owl figures and owl-themed books.

She's the leader of a 600-student facility that features some of the district's latest efforts to enhance elementary education.

Ducketts Lane will be the first county public elementary school to offer daily Spanish language instruction for kindergarten to second-grade students, with plans to later expand to grades three, four and five. Ducketts Lane also features interactive projectors in each classroom, one of several technology features at the $34 million school. Many students were excited about the new media center during the first week of school.

"It's been every exciting, filled with lots of parent and student excitement, and with teachers finally meeting their students — all the waiting and planning and then it comes together," Balter said.

Nestled in a well-populated community along U.S. 1, the school is expected to alleviate overcrowding along the corridor, drawing students from Bellows Spring, Elkridge, Rockburn and Waterloo elementary schools.

Balter's 26 years in the school system include serving as principal at Rockburn and Atholton elementary schools. She has also served at several county elementary schools, including Stevens Forest, Bollman Bridge and Pointers Run.

"The thought of opening a new school was exciting and something new," she said. "I think a lot of people aspire to open up a school because, while it's challenging and a lot of hard work, it's extremely rewarding. Principals are educators; they like to keep learning and growing."

A few days into the first week, students appeared to be adjusting well. A midweek fire drill was canceled because of rain, but as she walked through the two-story building, Balter praised a line of students walking down the stairwell for allowing for adequate spacing.

"I've only known her for a month or so, really, but from what I've seen she's very dedicated, energetic and positive," said Richard Ryans of Elkridge, whose two children attend Ducketts Lane and formerly attended Waterloo Elementary.

"Coming to a brand-new school, I think she displays a lot of vitality and vigor and excitement," Ryans said. "I really think that she's going to make a great impression on the parents and the students and the staff there."

Balter's efforts to help acclimate the Ducketts Lane Elementary community has included staging a dinner at an Elkridge restaurant and distributing a questionnaire asking students about programs at former schools they'd like to see at Ducketts Lane.

"She's been a good principal," said Ducketts Lane fifth-grader Jeremy Rualo of Elkridge, who attended Rockburn Elementary last year. "I think she did a good job of putting us all together."

Asked what he enjoys most about his new school, Jeremy said, "That all my friends are here and I can walk right across the street to get to school." He said Rockburn Elementary was a 15-minute ride from his home.

Ducketts Lane marks the third time Balter has served at a newly opened school. She was a kindergarten teacher at Bollman Bridge Elementary in Jessup when it opened in 1988 and a third-grade team leader and subsequent assistant principal at Pointers Run Elementary when it opened in 1991.

"I spent a lot of time in the spring planning and hiring, and that's different," Balter said. "As a principal of an existing school, you do a lot of planning and hiring, but it's not hiring 100 people.

"The planning piece is different because you're thinking about how can you plan to reach staff members that are brand-new, that have five years of experience, 10 years of experience, 20 years of experience," she said. "That's what you're trying to take into consideration as you're planning.

"And also the construction piece," Balter added. "Lots of schools in Howard County have had renovations, and people are used to that, it's that same situation — but on a bigger scale."

jburris@baltsun.com