Hillcrest Elementary School in Catonsville hits the big 5-0

Lisa Black, Jennifer Sloan and Joan McCartan have been teaching at Hillcrest Elementary School in Catonsville for at least 20 years each. The veteran teachers, all Catonsville residents, said they’ve stayed at the school so long because of the community in and around Hillcrest.

“It’s a very tight community, very involved community. I guess that’s maybe why we stuck around,” Black said. “We felt part of that community, and the parents are absolutely invested in the students here. It’s a very invested community.”

She said that even though other things have changed — students use computers now, the population is more diverse — the community involvement has stayed constant.

To celebrate that connection to the community, and to observe the decades-long history of Hillcrest Elementary School, faculty, staff and parent volunteers are preparing for a 50th Anniversary Fair.

The celebration is slated for Saturday, Oct. 13, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., in and around the school at 1500 Frederick Road. Admission is free.

The fair will feature music from a DJ, face painting, carnival games, merchants, a caricature artist and more, organizers said. Food trucks will be on-site, and inside the school building will be a student-constructed museum.

The main hallway of the school will focus on artifacts that were recovered from a time capsule that Hillcrest Elementary School students buried 25 years ago.

Auxiliary hallways will have information from each of the five decades that Hillcrest has been around. Students are researching and creating the displays that will go in each hallway.

Donations made at the event will help fund classroom libraries and a section of the school library in memory of Mike Bowler.

Bowler, who died in September, was an education reporter for The Baltimore Sun and a member of the Board of Education of Baltimore County.

Jennifer Lynch, principal of Hillcrest, said Bowler loved visiting the school and reading with kids.

“I am a lifelong Catonsville resident myself,” Lynch said. “It feels incredibly special to be able to celebrate one of the major cornerstones of our community in this way.”

Early history

Hillcrest Elementary School has had a storied past, according to multiple clips from The Baltimore Sun and The Baltimore Evening Sun.

The school was constructed in a way that “reflects the [Baltimore County Board of Education’s] increased sensitivity to charges of foot-dragging in the area of desegregation,” according to an article from May 1964.

The board moved up the acquisition of property to build Hillcrest from its 19th to its second priority in May 1964 so that it could open and “eliminate segregated classes at Banneker, the only [all-Black] school in the western part of the county,” according to Sun reports.

In 1966, an “avowed segregationist” named George Washington Williams, argued in Baltimore County Circuit Court that the county could not “engineer coalescence and force integration” by building new schools in white communities, according to The Baltimore Evening Sun.

The argument was unsuccessful, and Hillcrest Elementary School opened in 1968. By December 1969, students at Hillcrest Elementary were using temporary facilities at other school buildings because of overcrowding.

“One of the things that we really celebrate here at Hillcrest is the diversity of our student population; we love the richness of our community,” Lynch said. “We feel it here every day, but to now understand the roots, that historic part of why we feel it, it’s in the walls of our building.”

Hillcrest, last renovated in 2010, according to Baltimore County Public Schools, has seen significant change since its early days.

From 2011 to 2017, the percentage of white students steadily decreased from 70.1 percent in 2011 to 65.5 percent in 2017, according to data collected by the Maryland State Department of Education.

Students at the school have consistently performed well on state-mandated tests. From 2015 to 2018, fewer than 5 percent of students failed to meet expectations in English language arts and mathematics at the fifth-grade level, according to state data.

Lisa Black, who started at Hillcrest in 1993, said the change in student population is probably the biggest difference from when she began teaching. The student population is “definitely more diverse,” she said.

For McCartan, who started at Hillcrest in 1990, the biggest change between then and now is teaching styles, she said.

“It used to be the rows and the kids facing the front and everybody doing what the person in front says,” she said. “Now we're much more in tune with what each kid needs and fitting their style of learning.”

In addition to helping to prepare the celebration for the 50th anniversary, Black, McCartan and Sloan have each played a role in helping prepare the next generation of teachers.

They all taught, at one point, Zoe Dell, a current first-grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary.

Dell, in her third year of teaching, said it was during elementary school when she realized she wanted to be a teacher.

“It’s definitely the elementary school teachers that kind of inspire you to be a teacher,” she said.

Dell said she was proud to be able to call herself a Hillcrest teacher. She called Catonsville the “community that built me.”

“It’s cool walking down these hallways; I go up to my kids and I’m like, ‘Don’t talk in these hallways, I didn’t talk in the hallway.’ Or, ‘clean up that trash, this is my school,’” she said. “I make sure that they know and take ownership and be proud of it.”

That pride, and the sense of connectivity with the community, is part of what event organizers are trying to achieve with the upcoming anniversary celebration.

Pride in the school is part of what has led to more than 100 children of current and past staff Hillcrest staff attending the school, according to an internal count by a handful of teachers.

“The great thing about being in the community for so long is you can see the kids who are now adults,” McCartan said. “I’ve had some of them come back when they’re in 12fth grade holding their admissions letter to their college. You can be a part of all those wonderful, wonderful things that are happening. It’s exciting and it’s heartwarming.”

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

cboteler@baltsun.com

twitter.com/codyboteler

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