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Parents lobby for new John Archer, Homestead-Wakefield Elementary schools

Parents lobby for new John Archer, Homestead-Wakefield Elementary schools
Noah Jahnigen tells members of the Harford County Board of Education about his large class at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School. (Erika Butler / The Aegis)

Parents of students at two Harford County Public Schools whose replacements have been deferred in the last decade pleaded their cases for new schools Monday night.

New buildings for John Archer School and Homestead-Wakefield Elementary that once had been priorities in Harford County Public Schools capital improvement program have been deferred as priorities have changed, school officials said.

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A new John Archer is in the school system’s timeline for 2023-24, “15-plus years after it was originally deemed to be rebuilt the first time. That is unacceptable,” Mackenzie Wardrope, whose daughter is in pre-K at John Archer, told members of the Harford County Board of Education at their meeting Monday night.

“This school served the children from the time that they’re in pre-K through the time they’re 21 years old,” Wardrope said. “Just because they have a small population doesn’t mean our kids don’t deserve to have the best.”

She urged the board members to consider where John Archer is on the priority list and where it deserves to be.

The board was scheduled to review its 2020 capital improvement program at Monday’s meeting, but it was removed from the agenda so the staff can re-evaluate the priorities, school board President Joe Voskuhl said. The program will be discussed at the next meeting, on Monday, Sept. 24.

“To hit the point home, unless you have a child that is special needs, you have no idea what the fight is for our kids every single day,” Wardrope said. “The bathrooms and basic life necessities are not up to standard and it’s unacceptable.”

A replacement plan for John Archer, which is in the Campus Hills area and serves special needs students countywide, was first announced in January 2007, according to Mark Chapman, vice president of the school’s PTA and parent of a student there.

A scope study was done and plans were in place, but in 2011, the school system said it wanted to wait until a countywide facilities master plan was approved, which was eventually done in January 2015, he said.

“The reason we’re here today is to try and get this John Archer School in place ASAP,” Chapman said. “The children can’t wait weeks, months, years. Some of the these children need the help and assistance right now.”

David Bycoffe’s 11-year-old son Chase has attended John Archer for six years.

He praised the school for its staff, administrators and student body who “go above and beyond every day,” he said.

“They meet the needs of a small, but incredibly important part of not only the school community, but the Harford County community,” Bycoffe said. “I cannot say enough about the people that fill that school every day.”

The school building, however, has outlived its usefulness, with narrow hallways, facilities that don’t meet the needs of medically fragile students and the difficulties of maneuvering around the building, he said.

He realizes it takes money, and everyone knows money is tight, “but I would hope as a group you recognize the importance of those children and young adults,” Bycoffe said. “That school is for [students ages] 4 to 21, this is their community, our community.”

Homestead-Wakefield Elementary, on the south end of the Bel Air High and Middle schools campus, is in a similar position, Amy Jahnigen, president of the school’s PTA, told the school board members. She has three boys at the school — two in fifth grade and one in kindergarten.

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There are 30 or more kids in each fifth-grade class and the playground equipment is “sad and pathetic.”

“We have some major issues with class size, some major facility issues,” Jahnigen told the board. “We want to make sure we are looked at.”

Her sons, Adam and Noah, and some other students at the school spoke to the board about some of the issues they face daily.

“The kindergarten playground really didn’t have much to do because there’s not much there,” Adam Jahnigen said.

The third and fourth-grade playground doesn’t have a slide and “it’s really tiny” and the fifth-grade one is OK, “but it’s also pretty small,” Adam said.

Noah said he has 31 students in his class, and the fewer students in a class the better.

Viraj Singh, a fifth-grader at the school, said smaller class sizes are better. Some of the gym classes have “double classes,” 60 people.

“Someone could get hurt with a bunch of kids running around,” Viraj said.

Third-grader Brayden Evans has an almost 1-year-old little sister whom he “loves a lot.”

“I don’t want her on a playground and go through the rust and dirty stuff,” Viraj said.

Homestead-Wakefield was scheduled to be replaced in 2014, with the two existing buildings combined into one new one and then the smaller, older two schools would be torn down.

John Archer was to be built on the same campus, attached to Bel Air Middle School.

Once the replacement was in the pipeline, no maintenance was done, Jahnigen said.

“So are we going to get a new school? When is it going to happen?” she asked. “If it’s not in the next year or two, we need a new playground for these kids.”

With 1,005 kids, the school is already at 111 percent of its capacity, she said, citing enrollment numbers from last year.

Chief of Administration Joe Licata said the state never approved funding for John Archer and priorities have changed over the years.

Since those two schools topped the priority list, a new Red Pump Elementary and Youth’s Benefit were built and a new Havre de Grace Middle/High combined building is in the midst of being built.

The school system had planned to build a new Campus Hills school and Red Pump school, “but the County Council nixed that [Campus Hills] and said do a redistricting,” which is why Red Pump was build and Youth’s Benefit is so big, Licata said.

John Archer is in the school system’s capital request in the out years, but funding has not been committed to it, he said.

“The county executive has said he will only fund one major [school] project at a time consecutively, that he won’t do it concurrently,” Licata said.

If the Havre de Grace school is finished in 2020, “then we can move on to the next project, whatever the next big project is,” he said.

Among the projects at the top of the priority list is a limited renovation at Joppatowne High School. But the school board, Licata said, has been discussing moving up a new William Paca/Old Post Elementary on the list because of its needs.

“And Homestead-Wakefield has kind of dropped off the immediate list,” Licata said.

David Bycoffe explains the poor conditions at John Archer School, where his son, Chase, is a student, and lobbied the school board Monday night for a new school.
David Bycoffe explains the poor conditions at John Archer School, where his son, Chase, is a student, and lobbied the school board Monday night for a new school. (Erika Butler)
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