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Parents reopen school debate

The Baltimore Sun

Eldersburg parents have revived an 18-year-old effort to enclose Carrolltowne Elementary School's open-space classrooms -- a 1970s-era architectural fad that critics say disrupts student learning and poses a security risk.

South Carroll Del. Susan W. Krebs first pushed for constructing walls to hem in Carrolltowne's open pods when her now 22-year-old daughter started kindergarten there.

But the need for renovations to accommodate all-day kindergarten has put the project on the back burner in recent years. In its capital requests for next year, the Board of Education included the $3.6 million Carrolltowne partition project. Yet the six-year proposed capital budget recently presented to the Carroll County commissioners excluded funding for the site.

"These types of projects really take the advocacy of the schools and the parents," Krebs said from her office in Annapolis. "You've got to keep pushing this stuff, and let the elected officials know it's still a priority. Maybe by the time I have grandchildren, they'll get it done."

Though the county has four open-space schools, Carrolltowne Elementary became the priority project because it is South Carroll's regional special education center, where about 20 percent of the students have special needs, according to principal Martin Tierney.

Students with learning disabilities, or hearing and speech impairments, struggle to follow their teachers in open classroom suites, critics said.

In next year's request, the Board of Education also included money for construction of enclosed classrooms at the three other open schools -- Northwest Middle School, Eldersburg Elementary School and Westminster Elementary School -- for fiscal years 2009-2011. The county has yet to fund these projects.

'Educational fad'

Commissioner Michael D. Zimmer, whose daughter attends Carrolltowne Elementary, said the expensive renovation project is not a priority. But he wants to build security doors to internally lock down the school's open suites, in case of an intruder or fire.

"This was an educational fad 30 years ago, so we have to deal with it," Zimmer said. "But the doors, or lack thereof, give me heartburn."

Zimmer is pushing schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker and county budget director Ted Zaleski to consider this smaller project.

Carrolltowne has five open suites, one for every grade level except for third grade, which is housed in portable classrooms outside the school. The kindergarten wing was recently renovated into an enclosed classroom space.

Each open pod uses bookshelves, file cabinets, and bulletin boards and chalkboards on wheels to create four classroom areas. Sometimes the partial barriers are removed so the entire grade can assemble in the suite. Though the environment creates distractions, Tierney said Carrolltowne students continue to thrive academically.

"There really are pros and cons to it," said Tierney, who is in his ninth year as principal. "The open space hasn't been a detriment to our children's education. They're learning to work cooperatively, to listen and to perform with background noise. It gives our teachers the ability to collaborate more easily."

But Amy Gaskin, an audiologist with the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and mother of three Carrolltowne Elementary students, said the poor acoustics in the open classroom hamper learning. She said students learning English-as-a-second-language and those with learning disabilities, speech impairments and hearing loss particularly struggle.

"Children can miss up to one-fourth of the teacher's message while in this open space," Gaskin said, citing studies the state Department of Education supports.

"Kids really don't realize it, but they're trying to fill in the gaps as they're trying to learn new information."

Concerned parents

Carrolltowne parent Mary Ellen O'Neill said she worries about her second-grade son, whose hearing is impaired.

"If my son is in the second-grade suite and children are walking down the hallway, you can hear everything out in the hallway," O'Neill, a former elementary school teacher, said. "It's a more distractible learning environment than [any] I've ever seen. The county keeps passing over our school."

O'Neill said concerned parents were meeting Friday to launch an e-mail and letter-writing campaign, urging the county commissioners to fund the Carrolltowne enclosure project.

O'Neill estimated that a majority of Carrolltowne parents would prefer classrooms with traditional walls.

Weighing options

If the commissioners can't commit the $3.6 million next year, perhaps the project could be gradually completed in phases, said Michele Carroll, who has three children at Carrolltowne Elementary.

But Ray Prokop, director of facilities for Carroll County Public Schools, said that from an engineering standpoint, the entire project should be completed at once. Interior partitions, some exterior exits and new fire sprinkler systems would be installed.

Carrolltowne's high ceilings make the project particularly cumbersome, Prokop said. He said it couldn't be completed over the summer.

"If we're going to disrupt a school, we don't want to be doing disruptions year after year," Prokop said.

Michele Carroll said any temporary disruption is worth suffering if it improves the overall classroom environment.

"I'd rather have disruption in the short-term than the years and years of on-going disruption that the design of the classroom causes," Carroll said.

"You don't see open-space classrooms being built anymore, and it's with good reason. We need to fix those classrooms still in existence."


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