New school for a new year


When the new Aberdeen High School opens its doors to students for the first time tomorrow, it will mark the county's first new high school building since 1980, a $42.9 million project that will feature a countywide science and math magnet program in conjunction with Aberdeen Proving Ground's Army Alliance.

It also will be a new home for AHS students and staff who, for the past three years, have had to put up with disruptions as their former school building was being replaced.

"Just about everything has been improved," said Principal Thomas Szerensits. "The old building had a long tradition -- but it was also a very old building."

Said incoming freshman Malcolm Cohen-Ashley, who attended summer band camp in the new building: "The school is really, really nice."

The old Aberdeen High School consisted of a north and a south building. The north building was built in 1965 as Aberdeen Junior High and was turned over to the high school when Aberdeen Middle was built in 1975.

But officials decided it would not be practical to overhaul the old complex, said Dave Volrath, executive director of secondary schools and principal of AHS when the project began in 2001.

The south building was torn down that year. Ninth-graders were housed at Aberdeen Middle School under the supervision of a high school administrator. Tenth-, 11th- and 12th-graders took classes in the old north building, which school officials plan to use for Board of Education meetings, staff development and alternative education.

The new high school building, which will house all four grades, has a capacity of 1,360 and stands where the south building had stood for 50 years.

In designing the new school, officials created a separate wing in which to continue AHS's "ninth-grade academy," begun in 1996, in which freshmen take their core curriculum classes together. The idea is to make high school less daunting for freshmen.

Another distinction of the school is an accelerated academic program, known as the Science/Math Academy.

The idea of the magnet school first came up as a team composed of administrators, teachers, students, parents and community members -- including the Army Alliance, a volunteer advocacy group -- was designing the school.

AHS was selected to house the academy because of the proximity of APG and because the new building was able to accommodate the program, said Volrath.

Although the logistics haven't been worked out, the academy plans to tap the resources at APG, Szerensits said.

"There are magnet programs in other jurisdictions," said Szerensits, "but to my knowledge this is the only program that involves such a close partnership between public schools and the military. I believe that makes it unique."

Just over $2 million in county, state and federal money will fund the magnet portion of the school.

The academy consists of seven classrooms on the third floor of the school. The program initially will serve 50 students, chosen from 67 applicants in a blind selection process last winter. The process produced an diverse range of students, said Donna Clem, academy chairwoman -- 38 percent of the academy students are minorities, and the gender ratio is close to 50-50. Eventually, the academy will serve about 200 students, 50 from each grade, said Clem.

Academy students are enrolled in biology and chemistry freshman year. They will take earth science and physics during their sophomore year, said Clem, leaving them open to take "academy courses"-- similar to Advanced Placement or college-level courses, with an additional research component, Clem said.

In addition, the students take accelerated math classes and a course that focuses on technology in research, a dominant component of the program. The students will take required courses such as English and history with non-academy students.

"We want them to have a full and complete experience at Aberdeen High School," Clem said.

School officials are proud of the modern features throughout the school, not just in the magnet classrooms.

The non-academy science department, for example, includes rooms designated for environmental science with a no-slip floor surface and a spacious physics lab.

A black box theater adjacent to the auditorium was designed with drama classes and small performances in mind. The auditorium includes balcony seating and can hold about 600 people.

Aberdeen's dance program will benefit from the auditorium and black box theater, said Szerensits.

The drama program, which has used Aberdeen Middle School for the past three years, also will welcome the new auditorium, he said.

The new school also has a kitchen, which will be used by its professional foods program and for catering, said Szerensits.

The art department had a large part in designing three rooms. One room, designated for painting, has space for 20 stand-up easels. Pull-down power cords above each table eliminate the need for extension cords and outlet congestion, said Lesley Taylor, head of the art department.

"We have a nice ambience in here," said art teacher Rick Morris of the adjustable spotlights over each table.

The business lab, where students take electives such as accounting 1 and 2 and business law, contains three tiers of computers set up so that when students are working, the instructor can stand at the front of the room and see every screen, said Szerensits.

Faculty and students said they are looking forward to using the amenities the new school has to offer.

"It opens up a lot of possibilities for us," said Matt Roberts, athletic director. "And we're looking forward to having a home basketball game."

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