An early education center fills the space of closed Ferndale Elementary

The Baltimore Sun

For Sarah Wagner, her last year at her beloved Ferndale Elementary School became the last for the whole school.

In 2003, the school closed because of low enrollment.

"It was a sad year," said Wagner, now a sophomore at Annapolis Area Christian School. "The whole time I was there, we were just fighting to keep it open."

Those sad feelings were swept away, she said, when she saw her former elementary school transformed into Anne Arundel County's first preschool and kindergarten center, according to school officials. She was there Wednesday for the opening ceremony at the Ferndale Early Education Center, at 105 Packard Ave. in Glen Burnie.

She said she is thrilled that her alma mater has been preserved, even if the original 1925 building had to be bulldozed to make way for a $4 million building. The renovated 1965 addition still stands, and she has no trouble pointing out where former offices and classrooms were.

"I could still see it in my head," Wagner said. "I was just amazed to see a new generation of children are going to experience Ferndale."

The small size of the student body that was the essence of Ferndale Elementary School's charm led to its demise.

Parents and former students fought for years to keep the school open, but the county school board decided in April 2003 that there were too few children in the neighborhood to keep it going. The remaining 137 students were sent to George Cromwell Elementary School about a mile away.

Parents, such as Sarah's mother, Liz Wagner, wanted the county to keep some type of school facility on the site, rather than cede the land to development. Community members bristled at rumors of a parking lot or some other commercial development.

The school board decided to use the facility to provide pre-K classes for students who would have gone to Cromwell, Ferndale and Hilltop Elementary schools, said Maneka Wade, a spokeswoman for the county school system. The all-day kindergarten serves students from Ferndale and Cromwell.

Liz Wagner said that she understood why the county decided to close the elementary school, once she saw the enrollment figures and other statistics.

Although she never attended Ferndale, the school was close to her family's heart. In addition to her daughter, her husband and father-in-law - former state Sen. Michael J. Wagner - went there.

"It was sad to lose, but in its stead is this great learning facility," said Liz Wagner, who spoke at the school's grand opening ceremony Wednesday. Wagner also attended.

A number of Maryland counties are converting smaller schools into centers for specialized programs, said Barbara Griffith, coordinator of early childhood for the Anne Arundel county school system.

The decision to convert Ferndale into an early childhood education center was made to meet a state mandate for all-day kindergarten. The pre-K program at Ferndale is an all-day program, although that is not required by the state, she said.

"This gave us a much-needed space," Griffith said.

The county started the early education center at Cromwell in 2004, while plans were made to demolish the original 78-year-old Ferndale building, which was prone to flooding.

The new 24,000-square-foot structure has modern conveniences, such as a kitchen for PTA meetings a media center and art room.

Teachers finished unpacking in time for parents and children to get a sneak peak at the building Tuesday afternoon, said principal Lisa Ann Rice.

Some parents who have to trek children to Cromwell and the early education center have complained about the different start times. Ferndale opens an hour later than Cromwell because of bus schedules, Rice said.

That means that Stacy Heath of Glen Burnie has to take her son, Jacob, 9, to Cromwell and then wait to take her daughter, Rilie, 6, to Ferndale.

"It would make my life easier if both children were in the same school," said Heath, who is president of the Parent Teacher Association. "It's a great idea, but it doesn't always work for your family."

Despite the inconvenience, Heath said she loves the teachers and thinks the school is "beautiful." Every classroom has a bathroom nearby, so that children are "never really out of sight," she said.

Megan Krauch of Glen Burnie likes two different start times because she can take her 6-year-old to Cromwell and have extra time to get her 4-year-old ready for Ferndale. She brought Alessandro Montevago to see his pre-K classroom Tuesday and snapped photos of him in front of his bright red locker.

"He's very excited," Krauch said. "It's going to be a lot less crowded [at Ferndale]."

Amanda Fowler has been pleased with the attention her daughter, Bailey, 4, has gotten in her pre-K classes. She is learning the alphabet and becoming proficient at recognizing words, she says.

"I think that's the teachers and how it's presented," Fowler said.

Ron and Mary Ridgely also decided to drop by Ferndale on Tuesday to see the changes at their alma mater. They had hoped the elementary school would stay open, but acknowledged it always had been a struggle with enrollment.

Mary Ridgely, who teaches fourth grade at Glen Burnie Park Elementary School, said Ferndale Elementary's size allowed a closeness to develop between students and teachers.

"It was a nice school," Ridgely said. "It was small and that was what people liked about it."

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