'Happy place to be'

The Baltimore Sun

Lindsay Bottcher remembers doing a tumbling trick with her elementary school physical education teacher. Barry Palmer stood with his hands above his head, holding Bottcher up in a handstand. It is one of Bottcher's favorite memories of her former school, Stevens Forest.

Now Bottcher, 25, works at the school as a kindergarten teacher, drawn back by Stevens Forest's tight-knit staff and supportive neighborhood. Her memories - and those of other former students, longtime staff, and community members - will be part of a video presentation shown today at the Columbia school's 35th anniversary celebration.

The event, from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., will include food and 1970s themed games and music - a nod to the school's 1972 opening.

Stevens Forest is part of the Oakland Mills community. With more than 300 children in kindergarten through fifth grade, Stevens Forest is one of the county's smallest elementary schools.

George Pittman moved to the area 37 years ago. "I watched them build the school out of my kitchen window," he said. His daughter started first grade at Stevens Forest "the day the doors opened."

He added: "It was an exciting time. This was the beginning of Columbia, brand new school, brand new staff. That [school] being the center of the community - it was wonderful."

Most students live in the neighborhood, within walking distance of the school.

"As I understand it, it's the only school in the county that still adheres to the original concept of Columbia and that is, kids walk to school," Pittman said.

Palmer joined the staff a few months after the school opened. In addition to teaching P.E., Palmer runs an annual play and the before-school gymnastics group that Bottcher once participated in.

"I haven't felt the need to move on [to another job or school] because I've got really a marvelous community base that has supported my programs," he said.

The only major renovation to the facility was completed in 1995. A multipurpose room that served as gym, auditorium and cafeteria was converted to space for art and music classes. The school also added a new gymnasium. Over the years, the open classrooms typical of the 1970s have been partitioned.

Palmer has seen other changes. He said that the neighborhood is "much more diverse now than it ever was" and the school now has Title I status, with many children receiving free and reduced lunches.

What has not changed is the atmosphere, Palmer said. Hes said parents have told that "when they come into the school, it just feels good, it's a happy place to be."

Judy Gottsagen is another longtime staff member at Stevens Forest, but her relationship with the school began when her daughter started kindergarten there in 1980. Gottsagen was active in the PTA, serving as president. She began substituting and became a first-grade teacher in 1988.

"It is the friendliest school. I used to take my daughter up there. ... We used to go to the Stevens Forest activities before she was in kindergarten," Gottsagen said. She noted that all four teachers on the first-grade team had children who attended the school. They "lived in the community [and] chose to teach there because it's so friendly and open," she said.

"I describe it as like coming home to a family," Bottcher said. "It's just a very warm and welcoming environment" at the school. "Traditions have not changed from when I was in school to when I began teaching here."

"There's always been kind of a continuity that has gone through Stevens Forest," Palmer said, because staff members have kept traditions like a Halloween parade, Field Day and the annual play. "There are enough of us and there has been enough community support that - even though we change administrators - those kinds of programs continue."

Community involvement at the school is high. Many members of surrounding neighborhood attend the plays. Former parents volunteer - helping with scenery, props and coaching for the children's lines.

Pittman, a retired federal government worker, volunteers at Stevens Forest even though his children are grown. "I just like contributing in the community," he said. He built a large research center, where he leads children in conducting science experiments.

Although the school is preparing a time capsule for its 35th anniversary, it will not be burying it. Ten years ago, students buried the 25th anniversary time capsule and, Principal Ron Morris said, "Funny enough, we can't find it. We decided not to bury this one."

This capsule will be displayed in the school's art showcase, where it will stay until Stevens Forest's 50th anniversary.

Attendees at tonight's celebration will find several activity stations around the school. The games are "strategically placed so that community members can see the building. It creates a natural tour of the building," Morris explained. The games and activities have a "then and now" theme.

Morris plans to show the video featuring people's memories of the school and its history. Bottcher will appear on-screen with her mother, Grace Derenberger, who has been teaching at Stevens Forest since Bottcher was in third grade. "The faculty basically has stayed the same since I was here" as a student, Bottcher said.

She said that she is looking forward to seeing former teachers, administrators and students at the event.

"Because it is such a small school, anyone who's come through usually has become a good friend to the staff members that are here," she said.


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