Students head back to class in Howard County

Moments after the last bell rang on the first day of school, Juliana Dadurka rushed to greet her waiting mother outside of Ducketts Lane Elementary School, pausing to nuzzle the family's Yorkie Poo, Jack, in Shannon Dadurka's arms.

"It was good," Juliana, a third-grader, announced, assessing her first day of class. "We got to do a lot of fun things."


Juliana was one of about 600 students who poured out of the new Elkridge school on Monday, Aug. 26, as classes ended. The scene was a common one as dozens of parents waited outside the school for their children.

"This is a great situation," said Shannon Dadurka, who lives in the neighborhood across the street from the school. "We got to watch the school being built and now look at it — it's beautiful."


Juliana, like about one-third of her schoolmates, is a walker, much to the delight of her mother. The third-grader had previously been at Rockburn Elementary School and had to take a bus. But now she's right across the street and eventually wants to start walking herself to school.

Ducketts Lane officially opened with much fanfare on Aug. 25, the day before classes started, as hundreds gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new building that, as recently as one year ago, didn't exist.

"It's truly a 21st-century learning facility," Board of Education Chairman Frank Aquino said at the grand opening. "The building is designed to inspire creative and interactive learning, both within and beyond the classroom. The facility integrates beautifully with its environment."

The elementary school features several outdoor classrooms — both a science courtyard and teaching courtyard — and a wetlands observation area with a stormwater management pond and a boardwalk pathway. It's the school system's 41st elementary school, and school officials hope it will become the system's first to achieve a gold standard in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Ducketts Lane opened to students after 11 months of construction. Typically, said Bruce Gist, the school system's director of school construction, a school takes about 16 months to be built. But, said board member Ellen Giles, "we've never not opened a school" on time.

Remaining work includes the completion of a classroom for the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, the painting of lines and the school's mascot (an owl) on the gymnasium floor, and other various cosmetic work, like covering exposed door framing on one of the main entrances.

But the building is safe and ready to go, Gist said, and all remaining work should be done in 30-40 days.

"It's quite an ambitious project to build in the time allocated, and it has a lot of 'wow' factors," Gist said of the 120,000 square-foot, two-story building.

The 'wow' factors are numerous, but one of Dawn Bennett's favorite parts of the new building is admittedly mundane.

"I love the stairwells, can you believe it?" said Bennett, whose son, Awesome, in a third grader. "There's these panels of colored glass, and it's like the kids are walking in a rainbow. And this school is the pot of gold."

Like other parents, Bennett was excited for her son to be among the first students to attend Ducketts Lane.

"This is a perfect stage for kids who are starting school, especially for the first time," she said on the first day of school. "Being at this school, this is going to be monumental in their lives. It'll be legendary. It's a historic moment and I'm so grateful he has this opportunity."


Ducketts Lane Principal Heidi Balter said after students had settled into their first classes that it was hard to tell who was more excited about the new school — the kids or their parents.

"Or us," she said. "This is why we're here. The first day of school is the beginning. It's friendships, it's learning, it's new."

Students are coming to Ducketts Lane — built to relieve overcrowding in the northeastern region — from several elementary schools, including Bellows Springs, Elkridge and Rockburn.

"Kids are meeting all new faces," said third-grade team leader Meaghan Coburn. "A lot of them are coming in only knowing a few other people, so it's nice to get to know everyone else."

New way of teaching

On Aug. 25, Superintendent Renee Foose said that while the features of the building and its outside environment were exciting, she also wanted to highlight the work that would be done in the classrooms. At Ducketts Lane, students in grades K-2 will get daily Spanish instruction (the only elementary school to do so) and instruction will occur in "departmentalization," which usually first occurs at the middle school level. Subjects will be taught in blocks by one teacher — like language arts immediately before or after social studies, and another teacher will get the students for a block of math and science.

In both cases — the Spanish lessons and departmentalization — school system officials will monitor the results and report back to the board next year on possibly expanding the programs to other schools. Balter said that while other elementary schools do departmentalize on a few grade levels, Ducketts Lane is the first and only school to implement the teaching approach consistently in grades 1 through 5.

The school also features a digital whiteboard in every classroom. On the first day, technology teacher Sarah Melvin used one for a get-to-know-you activity with the students: using a digital pen, the students dragged a colored box representing themselves to a column marked with the name of their old school.

In a kindergarten classroom, Rachel Edoho-Eket was using the same technology as Melvin with her students, as they played a letter-matching game.

On Sunday, Foose said the white boards and the subject departmentalization will "give teachers more resources, more time so they can facilitate a deeper engagement and more rigorous instruction."

She added: "These teachers are trailblazers and they're trailblazers for your children's future."

A 'big deal' for Elkridge

County Executive Ken Ulman, who visited the school Monday morning, said the opening of Ducketts Lane was a "big deal" for Elkridge.

"Elkridge is a growing, strong, thriving community that's undergone some growth pressures because Howard County is such a desirable place to live," he said in-between classroom visits. "As we go through the Route 1 revitalization, it's critical that we develop the infrastructure the community needs. The school system and school capacity are at the top of our list."

Both Ulman and County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, in her remarks Sunday, noted the investments the county has made — and continues to make — in Elkridge. The new elementary school, plus a middle school scheduled to open next year and another elementary school on the horizon, Ulman said, make up a $100 million investment.

Also coming to Elkridge is a new regional park, library and fire station. Watson added the last thing on her "bucket list" for Elkridge and the surrounding Route 1 area is to see another high school built in the northeast corridor.


After six months of preparing for the first day of school with a staff of nearly 100, Balter said the build-up was so highly anticipated that, when it finally arrived, it gave her goosebumps.

"I don't know how to capture that, but it's overwhelmingly emotional," she said Monday morning.

Hours later, when Balter stood in the front entrance way of Ducketts Lane, having just given the OK for the buses to leave the parking lot, she sighed and smiled.

"It was great," she said. "The students are on their way home, and now we just have to keep the energy going."

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