West Towson parents hear plan to share space with Ridge Ruxton

More than 100 West Towson Elementary School parents gathered at the school for a meeting Wednesday night to learn about the proposal that would move four, fourth-grade classes to Ridge Ruxton School for the upcoming school year.

The proposal is designed to address overcrowding at West Towson, which is expected to be 140 students over its capacity next year.

"I think the solution they have in mind works really well for West Towson, and I want to make it work for Ridge Ruxton too," Cathy Berger, president of the West Towson PTA, said after the meeting.

Under the proposal, three classrooms and a fourth classroom-sized space that holds offices would become home to West Towson's fourth-grade students.

The classrooms are located in the high school wing of Ridge Ruxton — which West Towson principal Sue Hershfeld said was merely 28 steps away from her school.

The West Towson students would have their own bathroom, and be separated from Ridge Ruxton by a pair of hallway doors that will be installed to ensure that Ridge Ruxton remains a separate public special education day school.

Hershfeld said staff believe older students would be better equipped for the transition next door, but because fifth-graders take instrumental music several days each week, it was best to keep them in the main building to attend their lessons.

A meeting on the proposal on Monday, Jan. 30, at Ridge Ruxton was greeted with opposition from some parents there, but at Wednesday's meeting, West Towson parents seemed accepting of the idea.

Peggy Tufaro, mother of four West Towson students — including a third-grader who would be at Ridge Ruxton next year — said it was an ideal situation.

One of Tufaro's children was taught in a learning cottage at Riderwood Elementary, and she said having them in classrooms was a better option than portable classrooms — or moving children elsewhere.

"If my daughter had to move (off campus)," she said, "I don't know how well that would be taken."

Frank Griffin has two third-graders, and said he trusted the school to make the plan work.

Throughout the course of the evening, parents were told about every minute detail of the proposal's effects on students, from how staff would communicate and move students between buildings to the students' continued involvement in the morning announcements.

Another school on horizon?

But for many, like Griffin, the big-picture overcrowding problem was a larger concern.

Built to ease overcrowding at Rodgers Forge Elementary, West Towson opened below its 451-seat capacity in August 2010. Enrollment shot up to 519 in 2011, and is projected to grow to 591 next year.

Kara Calder, director of planning and support operations for the school system, said the projections were "spot on," and approved by the state when submitted with plans to build West Towson.

But a combination of the economic downturn causing parents to turn to public education and high real-estate turnaround involving families with young children caused enrollment to skyrocket. Berger, among others, was concerned that the school system was caught by surprise.

"My concern is more that it's happening at all," Berger said of the proposed space-share and the overcrowding problem that caused it. "They thought (West Towson) was a solution.

"If they were so wrong now," Berger asked, "what happens in two years?"

One possible answer, Calder said, is potentially a new elementary school. State funding has been requested for a 700-seat Lutherville-area elementary school, which would ease overcrowding from the city-county line up through the York Road corridor.

According to Calder, a Mays Chapel site previously discussed for a new special education school has been submitted to the Maryland State Department of Education for evaluation as an elementary school site.

At a budget briefing before the Baltimore County Planning Board last month, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced that the county would match state funds for the project, a commitment Calder called "very significant."

If the state agrees to provide funding for the school, Calder said that it could be open for the 2014-2015 school year, effectively making the Ridge Ruxton classrooms a two-year stopgap for West Towson.

While the West Towson students may not ultimately go to the Mays Chapel school, Calder said "comprehensive redistricting" could occur for the seven or eight affected overcrowded schools in the Towson area.

Ridge Ruxton perspective

A large contingent of Ridge Ruxton parents also attended Wednesday. Wendy King of Cockeysville, who was vocal at Monday's meeting for Ridge Ruxton parents, spoke near the end of the meeting to give Ridge Ruxton's side.

She said there is a fear that the quality of their children's care and education will be diminished in smaller spaces, and lamented the promise that accompanied Ridge Ruxton's agreement to give up land for the new West Towson building just a few years ago: They were told their building would not be touched.

King made sure that the West Towson parents knew that there was no gripe with them — only the school system — and one West Towson parent gave King a warm mother-to-mother embrace as she walked back to her seat.

Monica Leigh, a mother of two West Towson students who once worked at the Maryland School for the Blind, said she was sensitive to their neighbors' issues and hoped the parents could get together to form a better understanding should the space-share become a reality.

"I do want to feel like we're all working together for a solution, not just taking the space," Leigh said.

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