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School's designers focusing on details


School construction planners working on a new middle and high school in the crowded Bel Air area are pressing forward at "100 miles per hour," focusing on details of the concept design approved by Harford County's Board of Education and the state Board of Public Works last month.

With those two approvals, designers of the 255,000-square- foot Patterson Mill Middle-High School, scheduled to open in fall 2007, can turn to such specifics as window placement and wing square footage, said Kathleen Sanner, supervisor of planning and construction for Harford public schools. The goal, she said, is to have construction drawings by early next year so the school system can seek bids.

"We're going to go 100 miles per hour until someone tells us to stop," Sanner said.

The architecture firms CSD in Baltimore and Fanning/Howey in Alexandria, Va., are designing the school. CSD recently worked on an expansion of Meadowvale Elementary School in Havre de Grace, and Fanning/Howey has worked on several secondary schools and one middle-high school, Sanner said.

They were chosen from more than 15 companies that submitted proposals, she said.

The 1,600-student campus is designed with a "Main Street" theme, which juxtaposes such common areas as the school office and auditorium, with quieter, academic wings, called "houses," at the rear of the school.

Sanner said school officials saw similar designs in Carroll, Kent and Montgomery counties and liked the way the space "transitions kids from public spaces to serious, academic areas."

One of the main concerns of planners and parents, Sanner said, was providing separate spaces for high-schoolers and their younger counterparts. The middle school grades are grouped on the lower floor, while the high school grades are upstairs. The two levels will interact very little, she said.

The plan also features a wing for ninth-graders, to ease them into high school while giving them a separate home base, Sanner said.

The idea for the ninth-grade house came from the freshman academy at Aberdeen High School, she said, which has seen fewer disciplinary problems and improved achievement since ninth-graders were split from the upperclassmen, she said.

Deb Merlock, a vice president of the Harford County Council of PTAs who is serving on the school planning committee, said reaction to the plans has been positive, especially from parents of middle-schoolers.

"I think mothers are very worried about their daughters, is what it comes down to," Merlock said of the different maturity levels of middle and high school students.

"They are kind of feeling the world out," she said of middle-schoolers, "and you want to take precautions for them."

She said the design's "houses" create interesting learning environments and add flexibility for the future, when the school is likely to be converted into just a high school. The wings, she said, offer opportunities to create career clusters as well as academic departments.

Drew Cockley, principal of Century High School in Sykesville - one of the schools Harford officials toured that are built with the Main Street design - said splitting public areas from academic wings has created a "warm and inviting" feeling for students.

Though he said the intentionally narrower hallways into the academic wing can sometimes become crowded, there are fewer bottlenecks than in older high schools that mix myriad functions throughout the building.

"It has an open feel when you walk down the halls," Cockley said of the 3-year-old school, adding that he watches new students come into the two-story rotunda entry and stop and gaze at the space. "I think it gives them a feeling that things might be a little bit different here."

The Board of Education approved the design last month. The primary concern with the plan was the size of the auditorium, which seats about 670.

Board vice president Robert Thomas said he would prefer a much larger auditorium, but did not receive board support because Sanner told them substantial revisions would change the overall project scope and cost.

Sanner said the architects have designed an auditorium with flexible space, so a balcony or stadium-style tiered seating could be added to raise the capacity to 900.

Members will not have to make a final decision, she said, until the construction plans are ready for bids.

"The debate is always, do you put the money into classrooms that are used for instruction every day, or do you put the money into a larger auditorium?" Sanner said. Usually, classrooms win, she said.

A 900-seat auditorium could seat all the middle school, or all the high school, at once, she said, adding that the gym would have capacity to seat the entire student body.

Patterson Mill Middle-High is the county's first forward-funded campus, meaning county government will foot 100 percent of the estimated $52 million bill and seek reimbursement later from the state. The county plans to sell bonds, said John J. O'Neill Jr., county director of administration.

O'Neill, who was head of the commission convened about two years ago by County Executive James M. Harkins to study building a new school, said last week he and Harkins have not yet been briefed on the concept.

The school will be funded in large part through the bonds, he said. The county plans to issue them in 2006, when the bulk of construction is planned, he said.

In the interim, he added, the county can use bond-anticipation notes to pay for short-term expenses.

The current budget includes about $2 million for the school's preliminary design work, he said, and the county is putting almost $10 million in next year's budget for design work.

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