Students, educators mark school's 50th year

The Baltimore Sun

More than 30 years after Phyllis Watts Smith attended Oakwood Elementary School, she's back as the mother of an 8-year-old student there.

She returned to the Glen Burnie school Friday to watch her son perform in its 50th anniversary celebration, and bumped into her former principal, Otho Johnson Jr., outside the auditorium. She was so surprised that she had her older sister snap a cell phone photo of them together.

Smith, 42, recently moved back to the area and said it's "weird" walking the halls of her old school.

While the school has not changed much physically, the weeklong birthday party reminded former and current students, and staff members how much everything else has evolved.

On Friday, Oakwood students performed songs from different decades, watched a slide show of old photos and then went outside and planted an oak tree. Students came to class dressed in clothes representing a different decade each day of the week.

Johnson, who was principal from 1973 until his retirement in 1988, said special-education students are no longer taught in a separate "handicapped" wing of the school. Most of those students are mainstreamed in regular classes, while severely disabled students attend facilities such as Ruth Parker Eason School in Millersville.

"That's a major change," said Johnson, 76, who noted that the wing still existed when he retired.

The pay scale also has changed, said Ronald Dzambo, who has taught physical education at Oakwood for the past 36 years. When he started in 1971, his salary was $7,100, and he was paid once a month.

"You had to really budget your money," Dzambo said.

Although Dzambo teaches physical education at other schools, he kept Oakwood as his home base because of the family-like atmosphere at the school. With only 230 students in pre-K through fifth grade, classes remain small. Teachers get to know students and their parents, he said. Teachers stay for years and form close bonds.

"It's like living in a small town," Dzambo said. "It's a pleasure to come to work."

Scott Luedtke, 37, of Severn had Dzambo as a teacher when he attended Oakwood from 1976 to 1982. The two have reconnected since Dzambo began teaching Luedtke's two children.

"It's nice to see the same faces," Luedtke said.

Dzambo, 60, jokes that he will retire when he starts teaching his students' grandchildren. Lately though, he has needled school administrators that he might stay if the school finally installs air conditioners in the auditorium.

"If they do that, I may never retire," Dzambo said.

Over the years, Oakwood has followed other nationwide trends. It eliminated sixth grade in the mid-1990s, that grade moving to middle school. It doubled the size of its media center in 2003, said Principal Nancy Knouse, when the county Health Department moved its physical therapy office from the school.

Knouse, who has been at Oakwood since 2000, agreed that the school benefits from its small size.

"The families and the kids know you, and they talk to you," she said.

After the tree planting, students talked about how they enjoyed practicing for the assembly and eating anniversary cupcakes. Fourth-grader Julie Yarbrough, 9, who helped sing a song from the movie High School Musical, said she likes being at Oakwood.

"They have really nice teachers and a nice principal," Julie said.

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