A lot of work still needs to be done, but with less than a month left until the start of classes, the largest single-year high-school expansion in Howard County's history is nearing completion.
On Aug. 26, the school system essentially will open three new high schools -- Long Reach, River Hill and Wilde Lake -- that cost $80 million to build and equip and will bring to 10 the number of county high schools.
Teaching staffs are almost filled. Chairs, desks and computers are stacked anywhere there's open space. Construction workers are scrambling to put on finishing touches -- waxing floors, testing fire alarms and painting trim.
"I'm fully confident we'll make it and be fully operational by the time the first bell rings," said David Bruzga, principal of the new Long Reach High School.
"But will there be little problems at the beginning? I'm sure there will be at least a couple things that don't go quite right, but I have no idea what they will be."
The three new schools will enroll a total of about 3,300 students this fall, or about 30 percent of the 10,700 students at Howard's high schools.
For Long Reach and River Hill, the first day of school will represent a beginning, with new sets of teachers, new buildings and new student bodies. Both schools also are the first to join Howard's new technology program, which has replaced the county's vocational educational classes.
The River Hill building opened two years ago and has been housing students from Wilde Lake High, while their old school was being torn down and a new school built. During that time, their school was called Wilde Lake High at River Hill; this school year will be the first in which there's a River Hill High. The new school will take the River Hill building.
"We're able to create a brand new school -- not just a new building, but a new vision," said Scott Pfeiffer, principal of River Hill.
"We get a chance to create our own traditions and our own ways doing things."
For Wilde Lake students, the first day of school will mark an end to their temporary stay at River Hill and the opening of their new building.
"We're home," exclaimed Theresa Farson, a secretary who is one of just a handful of staff members who have been at the school since it opened as Columbia's first high school in 1971.
Only the gymnasium and a small interior wall remain from Wilde Lake's original structure; the rest of the school has been torn down.
"I'm really excited to be back," said Sam Nissen, a guidance counselor at Wilde Lake.
"It's been sort of hard for the past two years on everyone, because you know [River Hill's] not really our building and the kids didn't feel the same connection to it.
"I'm a little sad that the old building is gone, but I'm glad we're back in Wilde Lake," Nissen said.
While teachers and administrators are settling into the new buildings, dozens -- if not hundreds -- of details have yet to be completed, from filling the empty bookshelves at Wilde Lake's "information center" to installing the yet-to-be-delivered scoreboards at Long Reach to setting up the pile of still-boxed computers in the main office at the River Hill building.
But many other parts of the buildings already are done. School colors are in place, and a handful of classrooms already look ready to go, right down to bulletin boards covered with posters.
At Wilde Lake, even the paw prints for the Wildecats school mascot are stamped into the concrete in front of the school, and bricks in the school's interior "Main Street" are inscribed with the names of students, teachers and alumni who purchased them as part of a fund-raising drive.
"You can see we're getting there," said Richard Wilson, assistant principal at Wilde Lake, as he recently crossed under the "Do Not Enter" construction tape and tried to speak over a fire alarm test.
"We're really far along compared to when we moved out of the old building and into River Hill two years ago."
Wilde Lake's move from River Hill was similar to selling a house. Wilde Lake took along everything that wasn't bolted down -- computers, desks, books and chalk -- and left River Hill's staff to purchase new equipment.
"It's great because we have just about everything we need, but now we need to sort things out," Wilde Lake's Wilson said. "Some stuff that was supposed to be on the first floor ended up on the third floor, and most of the file cabinets and shelves didn't get delivered until the end."
At River Hill High, Pfeiffer says his biggest concern is filling a teaching position he created for the school: someone to split time between teaching computer classes and overseeing the school's computer networks. Such expertise commands a higher salary in private industry than the school system can offer, he said.
Both Pfeiffer and Long Reach's Bruzga say they've spent more than three-quarters of their time since December talking to prospective teachers and other staff members. About 80 percent of the new staffs at River Hill and Long Reach high schools have transferred from other Howard high schools and the rest were hired from outside the county.
While future River Hill students were able to see their new building during the last two years, students and other community members have been itching to get a peek at Long Reach's and Wilde Lake's new buildings.
Bruzga has been giving weekly tours of Long Reach by appointment, and Wilde Lake student guides will begin offering drop-in tours daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. -- starting Tuesday.
vTC "It's great to see the new school," said incoming ninth-grader Becca Wechsler after a recent tour of Long Reach. "But the school is so big, I still think I'm going to get lost."
Pub Date: 8/01/96