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Mount Airy parents demand a revamp

The Baltimore Sun

Some Mount Airy parents would like to see their local middle and high schools on the school system's newly proposed capital improvement plan, which the Board of Education is expected to vote on Wednesday.

Both buildings are in need of modernization, parents say.

"We moved to Carroll County on the assumption that our children would have the same opportunities as those in neighboring counties and the same opportunities as those within the same county," wrote Jennifer Seidel, who has a child at Parr's Ridge Elementary, in a letter to Carroll Superintendent Charles I. Ecker, the school board and the county commissioners. "We were quickly saddened to learn that is not the case."

Seidel also voiced concerns about safety for the sixth-graders who have classes in portable buildings at Mount Airy Middle this year.

The capital projects proposed for the 2009 fiscal year include the new northeast-area high school, a fine-arts addition at South Carroll High, full-day kindergarten additions at two elementaries and open-space enclosures at Carrolltowne Elementary.

Planning for Mount Airy Middle's modernization isn't scheduled until the 2013 fiscal year, and South Carroll High's is slated for later.

Mount Airy Middle Principal Ginny Savell said that although the building dates to the late 1950s, it has by no means been left to deteriorate. Aspects of the facility have been modified over time, and a fast, fiber-optic cable connection was installed this year, Savell said.

"We are taking the focus away from where it needs to be," Savell said. "My focus is on what we're doing here and what we have here. ... It's more important to be concerned about what happens inside - between the teachers and the students, because that's where the learning happens - than four walls."

The school has two "teams," or groups, of sixth-grade students this year, Savell said, while last year there was only one. At that time, three sixth-grade classes were in the portables behind the building.

Those portables include a quad and six other rooms that were added a few years ago, when fifth-graders attended the school temporarily to mitigate overcrowding at Mount Airy Elementary, Savell said.

Instead of splitting up classes and having sixth-graders and their teachers travel from place to place, they decided to house the whole grade in the portables, creating a "home base," Savell said.

Alexa Andersen, a team leader who suggested the move, said "it didn't make sense to have the sixth-grade teams in two different parts. ... It was for the better."

The rooms were updated for the new arrivals: Black-top tables, a sink and computers were installed for the science class like those inside; carpet was replaced with tile and new ceilings and light fixtures were put in; and the buildings were equipped with a television-VCR connection, telephone and Internet access, Savell said.

A new bank of lockers was placed just outside the cafeteria at the back of the building to ensure proximity to the sixth-graders.

"It's been great," Andersen said of their new surroundings. "It feels like we've got a little bit of independence out here."

Seidel and others said they aren't worried about what goes on inside the classroom so much as the facility's structure.

"I have heard excellent things about the staff and the teachers at Mount Airy Middle School, and I have no concerns" about the quality of education, Seidel said in an interview. But "outdated resources" could have an impact on education, she added.

Rita Misra, who has twins at the middle school and another child at Parr's Ridge, expressed a similar sentiment.

"This is not a criticism of the staff," Misra said. "We want to work with the schools and really support the teachers."

If the facility itself impedes teaching and learning, something needs to be done, she said.

"This really shouldn't be a divisive issue," Misra added.

While the suggested projects for the 2009 capital improvement plan haven't changed in order, board members could choose to alter the list, said Bill Caine, the system's facilities planner.

An educational assessment of schools planned for this winter also could change the project order, when considered with a recent facilities assessment, Caine said.

"What we found is [with] a lot of the buildings, there's not one that necessarily stands out as far as physical deficiencies," Caine said. "What really could separate them are the educational inadequacies."

The planning for future students should begin now, Seidel said. "Knowing that the classes coming up are only getting bigger, this is the time to address those needs."

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