Thomas Viaduct Middle almost ready for students from eight feeder schools

With less than two weeks to go before the first day of school, Thomas Viaduct Middle School was almost ready for the 521 students expected to walk up the newly poured sidewalk, proceed through the newly installed front doors and settle into new chairs at new desks in the newly constructed classrooms.

Though cardboard boxes filled with desk and chair parts still lined the halls, and workers were still putting the finishing touches on the driveway and gym, some of the sunny classrooms in the two-story brick school were already furnished. Flexible chairs are specially designed to accommodate wriggly middle-schoolers, and the desks are shaped so they can be joined together for working in groups. The teacher desks are on wheels, creating opportunities to easily reshape the learning environment.

"We're making it conducive to middle school teaching and middle school learning," said Principal Shiney Ann John.

In the media center, stacks of cardboard boxes were slowly emptying as the books cases filled up.

"We'll be ready," said Wendy McNeill, media specialist, amid a flurry of book-unpacking. McNeill, who is moving from Wilde Lake Middle School, said she has ordered some 15,000 books and other materials since finding out in April she got the job. As part of the school's embrace of technology, she's stocking the library with 2,000 electronic books, which students can load onto laptops or e-readers.

Banners have been created, including one that says "Welcome to our Family," and another with the school's vision: "Connect. Collaborate. Create."

John, formerly assistant principal and then principal at Oakland Mills Middle School, has been overseeing development of the two-story brick school since construction began last summer. She's made decisions about furniture and colors, hired staff and, perhaps most important, reached out early and often to the community.

"We are making sure the families in the community know that the teachers and staff I hired are hugely committed to making this school one of the best in the county," she said.

Thomas Viaduct, the first new middle school in Howard County since Folly Quarter Middle School opened in 2003, will draw students in grades six through eight from five elementary schools and three middle-schools: Guilford, Deep Run, Rockburn, Ducketts Lane and Bellows Spring elementary schools; and Patuxent Valley, Elkridge Landing and Mayfield middle schools.

That means its students will be splitting away from some classmates and neighborhood pals to form an entirely new academic community.

In the spring, John visited each of the feeder schools to ask future Thomas Viaduct students to vote on their school mascot, choosing between a timber wolf and an eagle. She discussed the characteristics of each animal, and students chose the timber wolf, known for its leadership and collaboration within a pack. They chose sky blue as the official school color, a hue that blends well with the greens, blues and beiges of the building and furnishings.

John also created a parent committee with representatives of each feeder school, and planned outreach events, including a Wolf Pack Rally with music and games at the Ridgely's Run Community Center in Jessup on Aug. 4 and a Wolves on Wheels event on Aug. 13. Both events were intended to introduce students and teachers, and to give families opportunities to get to know each other.

At the Wolves on Wheels event, about a dozen teachers and administrators arrived at Howard Square in Elkridge by bus, all wearing sky-blue polo shirts printed with the school's name. About 10 families were waiting. Teachers made a point of chatting with kids, and parents asked questions or just said hello.

Kristina McKirahan, 11, said she's "really excited" to start sixth-grade at Thomas Viaduct, even though her bus ride will be longer than if she went to Patuxent Valley Middle School. "I heard it's big," she said of Thomas Viaduct.

"[John] has done an awesome job of getting parents involved," said Kristina's mom, Becky McKirahan, as they stood in the early-morning sunshine at Howard Square. McKirahan said she's helping form a PTSA in the new school.

Veronica Monroe, the school's team leader for special education, said the goal of Wolves on Wheels is to "connect with the community, so when we get the kids, we feel like a community."

"This is a fantastic opportunity for us to meet the students," said Ann-Marie Kasuda, the school psychologist, who chatted with two boys in T-shirts and shorts about what they did over the summer. "We are seeing them on their own turf."

Environmental features

Thomas Viaduct is the first middle school in Howard County to adopt the Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD, policy, which was piloted in high schools last year. BYOD encourages teachers to create lessons that incorporate smart phones, tablets or other devices that students bring to school or use while at school. BYOD, as well as technologies such as interactive whiteboards in classrooms, "offer us an incredible opportunity" to help teachers use technology to enhance their lessons, said Keith Janelli, the head of instructional technology who is moving to Thomas Viaduct from Mount View Middle School.

The school has spacious classrooms and abundant environmental features, including a rainwater harvesting system and spaces for outdoor learning. In every room, skylights and large windows let in sun, reducing lighting costs and improving the ambience.

Thomas Viaduct is designed to hold about 700 students, and John said the space will be needed, since the school is situated in a fast-growing area.

The county's newest middle school is named for the Thomas Viaduct Railroad Bridge, built in 1835 and still scenically straddling the Patapsco River. It was the nation's first stone bridge with multiple arches. And by coincidence, it has eight arches — just as Thomas Viaduct has eight feeder schools, noted John. A large image of the bridge will be displayed, said John, as a symbol of how the eight elements work together to create something beautiful and strong.

"We're excited," said Stacey Dix, mother of twins Bailey and Brittney, who are starting sixth grade at Thomas Viaduct. "It's going to be interesting for them, not being with the same people they grew up with. But other than that, I think it's cool to start at a new school. We're excited about the technology."

For more information, go to the school's website, http://tvms.hcpss.org

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