School doesn't start for almost three weeks but two new Howard elementary schools already are getting rave reviews from teachers, students and administrators.
Elkridge and Forest Ridge elementaries will open Aug. 31 to ease overcrowding at neighboring schools. A third school, Burleigh Manor Middle School in Ellicott City, also opens this month.
"We had nothing like this before," said Mary Jane Mitchell, principal of Elkridge Elementary, which features a greenhouse, outdoor amphitheater, wetlands area, and pond made from a storm water basin. A nature trail will also be built along the edge of a wooded area next to the school.
Teachers said they appreciate the design of the schools, which feature restrooms and drinking fountains near classes and offer plenty of storage space.
"Everying is so well-placed, everything is so planned," said Tom Conroy, who will teach third grade at Forest Ridge this year.
The gym and cafeteria-auditorium are located in the front of each school, enabling school administrators to close off the rest of the building during after-school hours, Ms. Mitchell said.
Kindergarten classrooms also are located near the front to enable parents to easily pick up and drop off their children. Windows, vaulted ceilings and skylights are prominent in the schools, giving them an airy, open atmosphere.
"I think people feel better with sunshine and light," said Forest Ridge Principal Marianne S. Pfeiffer.
But the new gym in Forest Ridge impressed 8-year-old David Pacifico the most.
"I like how big the gym is," said David, who used to attend Hammond Elementary, where the gym was covered with a floor mat. "It's better than [the gym at] Hammond because the ball bounces higher on a wood floor."
The new gyms are about 20 percent to 25 percent larger than ordinary elementary school gyms to accommodate community activities after school, said Ms. Pfeiffer, who left as principal of Longfellow Elementary in Columbia to take over the new school.
The new schools are necessary because the county's 33,000-student population is expected to increase by an average of about 1,400 students each year for the next three years, school officials said.
Forest Ridge, at 9550 Gorman Road in Laurel, will accept overflow students from Laurel Woods and Hammond, which last year chose to combine their school colors at their new school. They also chose an eagle as their new mascot.
On the first day of school, students will be given new blue and gold "Forest Ridge Eagles" pencils.
Creating new school colors and a mascot has helped ease the transition between schools, said Forest Ridge PTA President Claire Pacifico.
"Instead of grieving, it's made it sort of exciting," said Ms. Pacifico. Students will develop a school slogan later this year, she said.
The new Elkridge Elementary at 7075 Montgomery Road replaces the 56-year-old building located three miles away on Old Washington Road, and the difference is dramatic, Ms. Mitchell said.
The old brick three-story school had "millions of steps," Ms. Mitchell said. To relieve crowding in the main building, children studied in portable classrooms. The school had capacity for 430 students.
The new school has room for about 270 more students in kindergarten through fifth grade and will share the 48-acre site with a middle school in 1995, school officials say.
The old building will be used on a short-term basis only if the county's student population increases more than school officials have anticipated, she said.
Open houses are scheduled Aug. 30 at both schools. Elkridge will be open from 1 to 3 p.m. and Forest Ridge from 2 to 4 p.m.