Debbie Sugarman spent a portion of a recent Tuesday unpacking boxes and arranging her Hillcrest Elementary School classroom for the upcoming school year.
The room hadn't been touched since June, she said.
Sugarman, a 64-year-old kindergarten teacher at Hillcrest who is preparing for her 10th year at the school, has been teaching for 23 years. She said she finds late August an exciting time of year.
"I love doing it, and I still do," said Sugarman, who plans to retire at 70.
As teachers and staff prepare for the start of the school year, students in southwest Baltimore County will be greeted by new faces and new buildings.
The first day of school is Tuesday, Sept. 5 — the day after Labor Day.
In Baltimore County, teachers at most schools will return to work Friday, but teachers at Relay Elementary School started a few days earlier, getting to explore and learn their way through a new $34 million building.
The building is designed for 700 students and is the fourth building in the school's history. The previous school opened in 1965, and expanded in 1995. The school, which had a capacity for 415 students, had 508 during the last school year, some in classes in portable buildings.
Principal Jason Barnett said the school has a layout similar to Westowne Elementary School in Catonsville, which opened its new building last year.
Features include larger classrooms, with restrooms inside kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, and a larger cafeteria and gymnasium. There is an outdoor classroom on the roof.
Some of the stained glass from the old school is in the new building's library, where a display honors formal principal James Skarbek.
Teachers are excited to move into the building and see what it looks like, said Barnett, who has given tours to some staff in recent days. Office workers moved in Aug. 14, he said.
"There's a lot of connection to the history," he said. "But I think the teachers are ready to come to this modern space, set up their classrooms and have the opportunity to deliver instruction and create flexible learning spaces for students."
The new Relay Elementary is part of the school system's 10-year, $1.3 billion modernization program, designed to eliminate overcrowding and provide air-conditioned buildings by 2021. Last year, three new or remodeled schools opened in Catonsville. A new Lansdowne Elementary School is expected to open in time for the 2018-19 school year.
Barnett, 42, comes to Relay from Warren Elementary School in Cockeysville, where he was principal for three years. He and Lisa Dingle, Relay's former principal, swapped schools, according to school system records.
Barnett said he jumped at the opportunity to help open the new building. He said he was impressed with the amount of natural light that comes into the school.
"It makes you feel like you're not enclosed," he said. "It's really important for the students."
Other changes in school principals have Doug Elmendorf moving from Hillcrest Elementary School to Catonsville Middle School, replacing Michael Thorne, who left to become executive director of St. Elizabeth School in Baltimore after 10 years at the middle school.
Elmendorf, 43, said he wanted to be a middle school principal particularly after watching his twin children, who are entering eighth grade, go through middle school. He said middle school could be lost in the shuffle between elementary school — a time for fun and excitement — and high school, a time for thinking about college and careers.
He said he wanted to have influence during an important time of students' lives. He described it as the time when students begin to develop opinions, interests and talents that are lasting.
"I wanted to challenge myself to be able to lift up the value of middle school experience," he said. "I think of it as the critical middle."
He specifically wanted to be at Catonsville Middle School because Hillcrest is one of the middle school's feeder schools. He'll go into the school year with what he said is a unique advantage — knowing half of the sixth- and seventh-grade students on day one.
He said he wants to spend his first year at the school identifying and amplifying the strengths of his staff. The school, which has a capacity for 774 students, had 841 students and a teaching staff of 55, according to school system data.
Elmendorf spent two years as Hillcrest's principal. Prior to that, he was principal at Chase Elementary School for four years and assistant principal at Middleborough and Dundalk elementary schools from 2004-11. He started with the school system in 1998 as a music teacher.
Elmendorf earned undergraduate degrees in music education and music performance from Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., and a doctorate in instructional technology in 2012 from Towson University. Playing the saxophone remains one of his interests and he's been known to play at times at school.
"The kids love it when I play, especially elementary school kids," he said. "We'll see what the middle school kids think."
Jennifer Lynch, previously the principal at Edgemere Elementary School, has replaced Elmendorf at Hillcrest. Before that, she was an assistant principal at Johnnycake Elementary School for three years and a school psychologist at several schools throughout the county for eight years.
She received her undergraduate degree, as well as her master's and certificate of advanced study in school psychology at Towson University. She is pursuing a doctorate degree in organizational leadership and policy studies in education at the University of Maryland, College Park.
A lifelong Catonsville resident and mother of five, Lynch, 43, said she was excited for the opportunity to work where she lives. Her parents, Donald and Linda Mohler, previously worked at Catonsville High School as a principal and French teacher, respectively.
As an educator, Lynch she has a responsibility to grow good citizens, adding it was important for her to help students in her community to serve theirs. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her children.
Hillcrest, which has a capacity of 666 students, had 718 students in the last school year, according to school system data. The school has four portable classrooms.
Lynch said there won't be many changes at Hillcrest, but there will be a new motto at the Frederick Road school: "Empowering every child every day, that's the Hillcrest way."
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"We want to bring out the unique strengths of each of our children and give them a pathway to a successful tomorrow," she said.
School supply giveaway
Three back-to-school celebrations, including one in Catonsville, are scheduled Tuesday, Aug. 29 from 3 to 7 p.m.
The Catonsville event will be held at the Banneker Community Center, at 27 Main Ave.
Free backpacks and school supplies will be given out to children. Police officers, fire personnel, fire engines, police cars and K-9 dogs will be on hand, as well as representation from local nonprofits and community organizations.
The events are hosted by the Kevin Liles for a Better Baltimore Foundation, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Baltimore County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Verletta White.
The other events are taking place in Randallstown and Dundalk.