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25 years of loyalty, learning and love; Anniversary: Alumni, parents and teachers filled the Jeffers Hill Elementary School cafeteria to testify to the school's positive influence on their lives.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With 25 years of scuffed floors and chalk dust under its belt, Jeffers Hill Elementary School in Columbia could be forgiven for looking a little worn out these days.

Instead, buffed and shiny, the school is going strong, according to the scores of alumni and original staffers who turned out for the school's 25th birthday celebration last week.

That may surprise those who know that Jeffers Hill has been labeled a "focus school" in Howard County -- a school receiving extra resources because of poor test scores.

But inside the newly painted blue walls of Jeffers Hill, there is no cause for surprise. Staff members love the school so much they can't bear to leave, even when offered better jobs.

Residents without children remain in the school's boundaries because they consider Jeffers Hill a good neighbor. Parents laud the school whenever there is an ear to listen.

Children who attended the school come back to praise memorable teachers.

Reasons like those probably account for the standing-room-only showing at the birthday party Feb. 7.

The hallways and cafeteria were filled with smiling, laughing, nostalgic people, sharing old class pictures and wallet-sized photos of new grandchildren.

Former pupils, staff members and parents came to reminisce and reunite with longtime friends. Current pupils and others, including local politicians and dignitaries, came to see themselves as part of the school's long history of family, community, loyalty and tradition.

So many people showed up that school board member Laura Waters had to park on the street, up the block, because so many cars crowded the parking lot.

"There's a lot of people who have loyalty to this school," said Principal Steve Zagami.

Zagami taught fourth grade at Jeffers Hill from 1982 to 1983, under Principal John Morningstar, who showed up with the three other former principals.

As an administrator under Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, Zagami has had to move around a lot -- Hickey's way of keeping principals fresh -- but said he would be perfectly happy to stay at Jeffers Hill, for the warmth, the teachers and staff there. And for the children.

" 'Focus' has taken on such an ugly connotation," Zagami said, referring to the label the school district has given the school because of recent low test scores. "It just means that we have a population of students that need extra help. But it does not mean that they aren't good students who work hard. And it doesn't mean that the teachers aren't excellent."

In fact, some of the former pupils attending Monday's celebration came to be reunited with teachers they considered excellent.

Kevin Daugherty, 18, is a freshman art student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. At 6-feet-4, hardly anyone recognized the young man. But he immediately recognized his art teacher, Mark Luce, and spent 15 minutes catching up.

"He's the one who got me started," Daugherty said.

Jessica Rennenkampf, a Owen Brown Middle School seventh-grader, came back to get signatures from those teachers who helped prepare her for the rigors of middle school.

"I had a lot of fun in their classes," said Jessica, her grin exaggerated by pink braces. "And I didn't really realize that until the sixth grade, when it got hard."

And numerous pupils and parents came to see instructional assistant Linda Migliore, who has been at the school since it opened Feb. 17, 1975, and fifth-grade teacher Dave Ortega, who arrived seven months later.

Together, the two have seen more than 8,000 schoolchildren come and go.

They are the elder statesmen of the school, Zagami said, adding that Migliore was his instructional assistant when he taught there.

When Lynn McKissic moved from New Jersey to Columbia in 1975, she wasn't happy about having to go to Jeffers Hill.

Her mother, Alexia McKissic, remembers Lynn having a little trouble adjusting. But teachers and staff members like Ortega and Migliore helped Lynn through those first years.

That is why Lynn made sure her four children -- Lynnette, Danielle, Derrick and Walter, now a fourth-grader -- all went to the school.

That's why Alexia McKissic, retired from her full-time job, works at the school every day as a lunchroom monitor.

Grandmother and grandson ate cake and punch at the school Monday night, in between Walter's basketball and wrestling practices.

"It's been a 25-year continuing experience. Isn't that something?" said Alexia McKissic, who bought the condominium she lives in so her grandchildren could go to Jeffers Hill. "I think it was the best decision we ever made."

One mother, Judy Tripp, brought along her 27-year-old son, Jason, his wife, Denise, and their two young daughters to tell Ortega that her son is a better man for a piece of advice the teacher gave him more than 15 years ago.

"Remember when you said Jason was very bright, but disorganized and that as long as I picked his secretary and his wife, he'd do all right?" she asked Ortega. "Well, he doesn't have a secretary, but here's his wife and these are his children. You were right!"

Ortega, with 10-month-old Jane Tripp and 2 1/2-year-old Caroline Tripp crawling around his ankles, beamed: "I feel like a granddad."

Migliore could barely walk the halls for all the hugs she was receiving. And because she is retiring this year, it was hard to hold back tears.

Every time a former parent volunteer stopped her to show pictures of grandchildren, or every time a group of girls sang her name from across a crowded room, she was at it again.

Over the years, she said, "I have been asked a couple times to go over to [Howard County's] staff development [office]. And some of the principals who came and left also asked me to come with them and work at their schools. But Jeffers Hill seemed to be my home. I had gotten very attached to the neighborhood and the school and, of course, the children. So I stayed.

"Even though this is my last year, I will definitely be back," she added. "There's a lot of love here."

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