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'First day is the milestone'


Most of Carroll County's 29,004 students will be cool in their air-conditioned classrooms tomorrow, even if typical August temperatures prevail at the start of the 2005-2006 school year.

Enrollment has increased by 230 since last year and the county has hired another 212 teachers, bringing the number of employees to 3,383. And nearly all of them will have the comforts of climate control.

All but one of the county's 44 school buildings, including its newest and first primary, Parr's Ridge Elementary in Mount Airy, are air-conditioned.

Students at Freedom District Elementary in Sykesville, Charles Carroll and William Winchester elementaries in Westminster and Mount Airy Middle ended their trials with heat in June. They return to newly air-conditioned schools tomorrow. Westminster West Middle School will have the amenity within a year.

Air conditioning the four schools consumed the system's maintenance program this year, but the new primary, for pre-kindergarten through second grade, dominated the project list, said Ray Prokop, director of facilities.

"The biggest projects this year were the new elementary and air conditioning," Prokop said. "There was no mad dash to finish the school at the end. The school has been ready for weeks."

Ann M. Blonkowski, Parr's Ridge principal, might disagree slightly about the "mad dash" part. She and her staff have been attending to last-minute details in the $15 million brick building.

The gym floor needed one more coat of sealant and supplies that seemed to arrive hourly had to be stored. Families were still registering pupils last week - enrollment is 470 and growing. The 73,000-square-foot building has room for about 650 pupils.

"We are really excited and becoming more and more so as we work together to open this school," said Blonkowski, who can't resist picking up an occasional shred of paper that has fallen on the glistening tile floor. "We are ready. We have our plans in place. We just need to get started."

Population and practicality determined the need for a primary school in the town that is in both Carroll and Frederick counties. Children in grades three through five will stay at Mount Airy Elementary, which is within a short walk of the new primary school.

"There is a kind of continuum that keeps our school community connected," Blonkowski said.

Sheri Maring, assistant principal, attended Mount Airy elementary and middle schools and taught first grade at her alma mater.

"This is a great opportunity to be part of the county's first primary school," she said.

Several of the county's new teachers have joined the Mount Airy faculty, including Michelle Balko, who will be teaching a dozen 4-year-olds in the pre-K class. She moved to the area from Pennsylvania.

"A fair amount of our staff lives in Mount Airy," Blonkowski said. "There is a real sense of caring because this school affects us all."

Balko showed off her classroom amenities, including colorful baskets with each child's name and a child-sized bathroom. All the kindergarten classrooms have their own bathrooms with miniature fixtures. Even the cafeteria is geared to small children.

The county has installed the latest technology, including a lab with 30 computers. The media center, which opens onto a courtyard, offers hundreds of books, CDs and DVDs. The children can also borrow a puppet.

"They can be book buddies to read to," said Jan Nies, media specialist.

Blonkowski plans to greet her pupils at the front entrance tomorrow. "I can't wait to see these children get off the bus," she said.

Parr's Ridge buses are part of the county's fleet of 358 vehicles that operate nearly 900 routes throughout the county. They make 9,000 stops in the morning and again in the afternoon.

"We cover about 5.4 million miles a year, not counting athletic or field trips," said James Doolan, transportation director.

As they exit their bus, the Parr's Ridge children will walk into a sunlit foyer that welcomes them to "Polar Bear Country" - a salute to the school's mascot.

Just off the foyer, Lisa Duvall has decorated her art class with playful butterfly mobiles to help introduce kindergartners to their first science unit - insects.

"This school is a great space," Duvall said.

For Prokop, opening day offers a little respite, but the lull won't last long.

"The first day is the milestone," he said. "We have the hardest work behind us."

But soon, there will be more hard work ahead of him, he said.

The next projects include the design of yet another elementary school, the county's 23rd - Ebb Valley in northern Carroll County - and the third and final phase of the nearly $20 million renovation at North Carroll Middle School, which should be finished by the end of the year.

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