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New school on schedule for Advent Lutheran

The teachers at Advent Lutheran Elementary School found themselves adding some job duties this summer -- everything from mover to interior decorator.

Less than two weeks before the start of classes this Tuesday, teachers at the school were still unpacking boxes of textbooks, fitting eraser boards to the walls and learning how to use their new laptops. The floors were dusty, the piano was still out in the hall and the classrooms were labeled with white paper tags taped to the doors.

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Everything, in other words, was right on schedule. Ten years after coming together as a congregation, Advent Lutheran Church will open the doors to its new elementary school this year.

"I think all of it is just about ready," said Marty Amsl, the chairman of the school's board. "I'm very happy with it."

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Natural extension

The school was a natural extension for the church, said Clarence Fry, the president of the Advent Lutheran congregation in Forest Hill. Soon after the church's founding in 1993, the members of the then-storefront church decided that their mission was to serve children.

They opened a Child Development Center for preschool children in 1998, and two years later began exploring the potential for an elementary school. From those first meetings came the plans for the new kindergarten-through-grade five school.

"I can only attribute it to divine intervention, if you want to get highfalutin about it," Fry said.

Nevertheless, he said not everyone in the congregation was pleased about the school. A few church members thought the funds, borrowed at a low rate from a Lutheran financial organization, would be better applied to expanding Advent's sanctuary space, which is used during the week as part of the Child Development Center. Fry said he feels that it's "a waste of money to build a sanctuary for $1 or $2 million and sit in it for four hours a week."

Fry added that he and other church officials are sensitive to that concern, but that they believe child services, such as the school, take a higher priority.

Marge Potter, the school's principal, was effusively pleased with the school. Moving through the box-strewn halls recently, Potter praised teachers, the school officials and the construction workers, some of whom remained on site to finish last-minute details.

"It's really the blessing of the spirit that has brought this all together," she said.

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Kindergartners and first-graders will have their own classes, but pupils in higher grades will have a "combo class," where they will share a room and a teacher, Kelly Reed. The school decided on the combination model to let parents know that their children would be able to grow into upper elementary grades at the school, Potter said.

After fifth grade, pupils at Advent will get preference for seats at Harford Lutheran School, the middle and high school in Bel Air also opening this year.

Small start

Advent Lutheran Elementary will open with 30-something pupils, Potter said. The number is in flux because she's still getting applicants, she said.

Although Potter said she's received a good response from the community, Fry said the enrollment figures were lower than his expectation of about 56 pupils.

"Right now, backing that expectation down to maybe 30-odd makes the red ink flow a lot thicker than we had initially anticipated," Fry said, who added that the church had borrowed more money to cover the shortfall.

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Still, he's optimistic that once the first class of pupils arrives, word of mouth will bolster future enrollments. He said he hopes for full enrollment -- 120 pupils, give or take a few -- by the 2005-2006 school year. Advent has plenty of draws for future pupils, Potter said, like the school's technological aspects. Advent will have a wireless network, complete with a laptop cart that will bring computers into the classrooms. Also, each classroom will have its own television and VCR/DVD players.

The school is also an option for parents worried about crowding at Harford elementary schools, said Karen DeMey, the kindergarten teacher, noting that the Advent classes are capped at 22 pupils per grade.

Although crowding in public elementary schools is leveling off now, it remains a big concern, said Pat Skebeck, director of elementary education for Harford public schools.

However, Advent won't make much of a difference in that crowding, she said. "For them to take 50 kids or even 100 kids isn't going to impact [us]," Skebeck said.

But she said that she did think there was a place in the county for schools like Advent.

"We do not teach religion in our schools, and there are some parents who want religion to be part of their [children's] learning," Skebeck said. "I just think it's more a matter of parent choice and child need."

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Potter and her teachers acknowledge that the school won't be a good fit for everyone. Religion will be a strong element at Advent, both in the classroom and out.

If parents don't want that, Advent probably isn't the right place for them, Potter said. "We're not going to massage the school" to fit individual parents, she said.

Yet Potter said the school isn't only about religion.

"We're kind of giving them the skills for life," Potter said. "Education frees you to learn to think for yourself. If we can do that well, our children will flourish wherever they go."


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