Delighted school daze

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sawdust speckles hallway floors, and classroom televisions have yet to be installed. A power saw whirs in the distance, as workers cart away cardboard boxes that carried the computers filling up laboratories at New Town High School in Owings Mills.

Less than two weeks before its opening, Baltimore County's first new high school in 25 years remains a work in progress - though one that is nearly finished.

Outside, workers are sweeping the dirt off just-completed sidewalks; inside, teachers are decorating their classrooms.

"We'll be ready," Principal Margaret I. Spicer declared on a tour of the $35.3 million, 214,825-square-foot building yesterday.

Spicer guided visitors through wide hallways, past state-of-the art computer labs and into a 600-seat auditorium. Next, she showed off an 18,000-volume library and finally, a video production studio.

She pointed out the security office, where 27 surveillance feeds are displayed, seminar rooms where teachers can meet with small groups of students and an airy cafeteria with drop ceilings and food courts.

"It's a beautiful building, but what's important is the quality of programming," said Spicer, who had been principal of nearby Owings Mills High.

"If we don't have the quality of programming, we're going nowhere."

Eagerly awaited, New Town High will have to be ready when ninth-graders rush to their classrooms Aug. 25. Tenth-graders will follow the next day.

To ease the transition, the school will open this year with only those two classes.

"This school had to be built," Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said yesterday while visiting the 64-acre campus, which sits in one of the county's fastest-growing communities.

Many of the students who will attend classes in the two-story, brick building live in the neat rows of townhouses and apartment buildings visible from the school's windows.

Parents, who have clamored for a new high school for years, hope this one will not suffer the same crowding that tarnished the opening of New Town Elementary, across the street, in September 2001.

New Town Elementary remains hundreds of pupils over capacity, as evidenced by the white portable classrooms sitting in the front yard.

"I'm impressed," Jeanette Key, the PTA's second vice president, said of New Town High.

"My main concerns would be: Are we able to accommodate the children? And will the education be a quality one?" Key said.

Spicer estimated about 430 students would enroll at New Town High this school year - 412 have registered - and said the school's 36 teachers are more than enough.

The school can accommodate 1,348 students.

She said the academic program will be on the cutting edge.

To get students thinking about college and careers, they will pick an area of concentration - the arts or business, for example - and take related classes.

An Advanced Placement biology class will be taught this year. Some students will be taking Spanish 5.

The library is stocked with abstruse reading materials, including volumes such as the Encyclopedia of Motion Picture Sounds.

"Our book collection is just amazing," said Fran Glick, the librarian, standing near the computerized card catalog.

Such amenities led parents to fight for boundary lines that would allow their children to attend the school.

Initially, families living outside New Town proper feared their children would be excluded, but their worries proved unfounded.

The only development sullying the opening was the surprise departure of Wayne Thibeault, the hand-picked principal who hired the school's teachers, bought its furniture and plotted its career-oriented academic program.

In June, Thibeault announced he was leaving to take over Havre de Grace High School in Harford County because he would have a shorter commute.

The move initially left some teachers and parents unsettled. But they now say they're eagerly anticipating the start of school.

Around the building yesterday, teachers prepared their classrooms.

In the language lab, Jodi Grosser-Gonzalez, chairwoman of the world languages department who had taught at Randallstown High, stapled pictures to a bulletin board.

"I'm going to walk into this building every day with a smile on my face," Grosser-Gonzalez said.

"I love the kids, and now I have a better facility to do my job," she said.

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