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Students discover new school in 'awe'

The Baltimore Sun

For half of the children at Tracey's Elementary School, the real first day at their school didn't roll around until January.

The Tracys Landing school was closed for renovation three and a half years ago, and all the students were shipped to a nearby middle school in southern Anne Arundel County - the only school that students in kindergarten and first and second grade had ever known.

Now the youngest students - and their older peers and the staff - are getting used to a completely redone and practically unrecognizable building.

"It's a lot bigger," said fifth-grader Harleigh Tucker. "The gym is so big."

She was one of the students who on Monday helped cut the ribbon on the modernized $16.4 million building, a ceremony attended by parents and state and county officials.

"You guys used to have a school mascot, and it used to be a termite," county schools superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell told the gathered students, who responded on cue by imitating the insect's squeaking sound.

The original structure built in 1962 had become crowded, with classes spilling into trailers and the multipurpose room living up to that name, juggling roles as gymnasium and cafeteria.

The staff and students began the 2004-05 school year at Southern Middle in Lothian - the same school that until a year earlier had sent its eighth-graders to Southern High while their home school was renovated.

Despite the less-than-perfect circumstances, Principal Theresa Zablonski said the school had few problems during its time at the middle school.

"We had a good relationship with Southern Middle School Principal Mary Ann Buckley," she said, adding, "It worked out pretty seamlessly."

Zablonski and her teachers said the new building was generating a new level of excitement for learning. In addition to a new, full-size gym that will be open for community use, the school features a revamped media center, a science lab and additional classrooms.

The new building, which students moved into after the holiday break, can accommodate 353 students, nearly 100 more than the current enrollment.

"Everyone was so quiet, looking around in awe," Zablonski said.

By working off the original structure and relocating the students during the renovations, the school system kept construction costs relatively low, said David Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program.

Michael J. McNelly, a former school board member who lives in the community, said the building was proof that "Annapolis hears us in south county."

County Executive John R. Leopold acknowledged the difficulties in getting funding, noting that the state's budget for schools is shrinking this year.

"It's very competitive," he said, while crediting a "strong partnership" between the school and county for getting the elementary the money it needed.

Third-grade teacher Regan Christian said the school had needed renovation when her own daughter was in a "substandard" kindergarten classroom.

"She's now been a teacher for two years," she said, adding that she is now happy "just having everyone in the same building."

Harleigh, after three weeks of getting settled in, seemed about as enthused as any fifth-grader would be when describing her school.

"It's just class," she said.

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