A former Youth’s Benefit Elementary teacher recalls her experiences following a dedication ceremony for the new Fallston school Saturday.
Alva Amoss McMullen taught at Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston for 30 years. Her mother, Rose Amoss, taught there when it was in a two-room schoolhouse, and McMullen's children and grandchildren attended when the children were spread over two buildings on one site.
She and her daughter, Cathy Amoss-Babcock, toured the new $37.1 million, more than 149,000 square-foot building Saturday that brings Youth's Benefit's 1,005 students — plus faculty, staff and administrators — under one roof.
"It's beautiful, it really is," the 80-year-old McMullen said while visiting an art classroom. "It certainly is wonderful and oh, my goodness, it's got so many opportunities and so much technology."
McMullen, who grew up in Fallston and still lives there, said her mother spent 43 years teaching in Harford County. Rose Amoss started in 1927 when Youth's Benefit was in a two-room schoolhouse, and she ended her career at Youth's Benefit on its present-day site off of Route 152, McMullen said. McMullen started teaching in the early 1960s and retired in 1993.
Cathy Amoss-Babcock, 58, of Fallston, and her brother, Bill Amoss, the head of agricultural land preservation for Harford County, attended Youth's Benefit along with their children.
"I thought it was beautiful, and my hope is one day my grandchildren will go there," Amoss-Babcock said later.
She and her mother toured the new building following a dedication ceremony in the gymnasium. State, Harford County officials and schools leaders were present, as well as school administrators and staff, students, past administrators and members of the community who spent years pushing for a new school to replace the aging and unsafe buildings.
Board of Education Vice President Laura Runyeon, a former Youth's Benefit parent who worked with the Build It Now community organization that pushed for a new school, gave opening remarks for the Saturday morning ceremony.
She lauded the community supporters in Build It Now and the school's PTA, as well as the "decision makers" at the local and state level, who worked to bring the new facility to fruition.
"All of these groups have done their part, and the result is a single, safe building in which every student and every staff member can collaborate to meet the needs of our children," Runyeon said.
Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan talked about Youth's Benefit's "heart."
"Over the years, a climate and a culture has been built that is embracing, loving and committed to children, and to everyone that walks into this house of learning," she said.
Ground was broken in October 2014, and one section of the two-story building opened for students in kindergarten, first and second grades at the start of the 2016-17 school year. The second section — for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders — opened last November.
"That's when was the true magic occurred, when we became one school in one amazing building," Principal Thomas Smith said.
Some work remains on the grounds and parking and pickup and drop-off areas, Smith said after the ceremony. He said the staff parking lot should be complete by early May, weather-permitting. Paving was put down recently for the bus loop, and another layer of asphalt is needed, plus landscaping and stormwater management facilities must be completed.
'One school, one building'
In his remarks, Smith thanked students, teachers, staff, members of the community, the school's construction committee, multiple HCPS leaders and staff and, finally, his family for everyone's support during construction.
"This project brought us all together as one school, one building," Smith said.
School operations continued during the construction process, and the old buildings were demolished after sections of the building were completed and occupied. Smith thanked parents and students for their flexibility and patience.
He said every student and staff member painted rocks this year, inspired by the book "Only One You," by Linda Kranz.
"We will be placing all of these rocks in the courtyard, as a symbol that everyone who was here this year will forever be a part of YBES," Smith said.
A cornerstone box was filled with items to mark the occasion, including sheets filled with signatures, an event program, commemorative coins, an HCPS logo pin, and copies of The Aegis newspaper from the week leading to Saturday's ceremony.
An Aegis reporter placed copies of the Harford County paper in the box, Canavan placed the logo pin and YBES faculty, staff and administrators placed the other items.
Runyeon presided over the formal presentation of the building, first to the community, which was accepted by Sarah Richard, president of the PTA, then to the staff — accepted by gifted-and-talented teacher Connie Charitonuk — and finally to the student body.
Citations were presented by County Executive Barry Glassman, County Councilman Patrick Vincenti, state Del. Andrew Cassilly and Jillian Storms, school facilities architect for the Maryland State Department of Education, who represented Gov. Larry Hogan.
Glassman, who attended last week's groundbreaking ceremony for the new Havre de Grace Middle/High School, said Youth's Benefit is the first school where he has helped cut the ribbon. He said he expects it will be the last ribbon-cutting on a new school for Canavan, who is scheduled to retire June 30 after 45 years with Harford County Public Schools.
"Thank you for all your years of service to Harford County, and I wish you the best," Glassman said.
The new building replaces a primary grades building that opened in 1953 and an intermediate building that opened in 1973. The school has expanded over the years to support a growing student population as the Fallston area became more developed. A building for kindergartners was built in 1968, and there have been classroom trailers on campus at times, according to the program.
Youth's Benefit has the largest student population of Harford County's 33 elementary schools. Smith said the building has the capacity for more than 1,100 students.
The average class sizes are 20 students in kindergarten and first grade, 24 for second grade and 28 to 29 for third through fifth grade, Smith said after the ceremony.
'State of the art and wonderful'
Each student has his or her own laptop, making Youth's Benefit the only one of Harford County's 54 public schools to have a "one-to-one" ratio of students to devices, according to Smith.
"Everything is just so state-of-the-art and wonderful," Amanda Joy, a parent from Fallston, said.
Her daughter, Genevieve — who was on stage for the ceremony — is in second grade, and her son, Michael, is in kindergarten. She said Michael can go through fifth grade in the new building, while her daughter started in the old primary building two years ago.
"The old building was very quaint, but the new building is just state of the art," she said. "It's so bright and open."
Joy said "the staff is what really makes the school the most amazing."
Jim Dryden was principal of Youth's Benefit from 1985 to 1998, and he recalled when the school had as many as 1,250 students.
"I'm just thinking how much easier if would have been to be principal of one [building] operation," he said after the ceremony.
Paul MacMillan, of Build It Now, had three children go through Youth's Benefit, with the youngest graduating in 2017.
His father-in-law, retired HCPS educator Dale Hunsinger, was an assistant principal at Youth's Benefit during the 1970s and '80s. Hunsinger, who also attended the ceremony, is the former principal of Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air.
"Every member of Build it Now knew that our kids would never get to experience the new building, but that's not why we did it," MacMillan said.
He said that the group, which is still advocating to bring other Harford County schools with multiple buildings under one roof, did it for children in the Fallston community.
"Every time I'm in here I fight back the tears because it's a safe, healthy place with a classroom setting, where the kids can concentrate and learn," MacMillan said.
MacMillan said the former Youth's Benefit buildings had issues such as lead-contaminated water, a failing septic system and open classrooms in the intermediate building.
He recalled visiting during American Education Week when his daughter was taking a spelling test.
"I could hear four teachers calling out spelling words to each of their classrooms at the same time," MacMillan said.
Parent Julie Parrish, of Fallston, and her son, Tommy, a third-grader, are also glad to have enclosed classrooms.
Parrish said "you had classrooms that didn't have walls or doors," but were separated by items such as curtains, in the intermediate building.
"The fact that [the students] each get their own dedicated classroom for each class, as opposed to an open space where you're battling the sounds and distractions that come from that, that's a good transition," she said.
Her son, Tommy, has experienced the old and new buildings. He spent kindergarten and first grade in the former primary building, all of second grade in the new building, part of third grade in the former intermediate building and returned to the new building for the rest of third grade.
He said he likes the new building's gym, having his own laptop and an enclosed classroom.