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Baltimore Sun

Construction displaces Laurel Elementary students for opening of school

The first day of school in the county was Monday; but at Laurel Elementary, the massive, ongoing construction at the school displaced students and sent them to other schools to begin the school year.

Students in pre-kindergarten have been re-located to nearby Scotchtown Hills Elementary, and students in kindergarten through fifth-grade have been re-located to the old Greenbelt Middle School, which sits vacant after the construction of a new Greenbelt Middle School and is nearly 13 miles from Laurel Elementary.

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Despite the upheaval, the first few days of school for Laurel Elementary students have gone smoothly, Prince George's County Public School officials said.

"We're proud of the staff, parents, kids, everyone," said Andrew Zuckerman, the assistant superintendent overseeing Laurel's area. "Everyone's pulled together and it's gone really well."

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The construction has had a much larger impact than first expected.

Early last week, Laurel Elementary Principal Melinda Lee said in an email to parents that only pre-kindergarten and fourth-grade students would be displaced, and only for the first week of school.

But late Friday came word from the school system that all students would be displaced, and for at least two weeks.

The announcement came less than 67 hours before the bell rang on the first day of school.

Zuckerman said all signs pointed to the school being re-opened Sept. 4, the day after Labor Day.

Laurel PTA President Kimberly Allred said that though common sense — driving by the school and still seeing it in the midst of heavy construction — told her the school would not be ready, the announcement still came as a surprise.

"To be notified that the school is closing on a Friday afternoon, right before it's supposed to open (Monday), that was a surprise," she said.

Busing from Laurel Elementary

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Students have been taking their regular buses or walking to Laurel Elementary and arriving at 7:45 a.m. — the normal bell time. They then board buses at the Laurel Armory and Anderson and Murphy Community Center, across the street from the school at Fifth and Montgomery streets, and are taken to either Greenbelt or Scotchtown. Each bus is being supervised by Laurel staff.

Pre-kindergarten students are bused home from Scotchtown Hills at their normal dismissal times: midday for those in the morning session, and at the end of the school day for those in the afternoon session.

Other students board their regular buses at Greenbelt at dismissal and are taken home. Any students in day care or extended care, or who walk to school, are taken back to Laurel Elementary by bus.

Zuckerman said students have been arriving at Greenbelt at about 8:05 a.m., and have been receiving "a good day of instruction."

There are still concerns, however.

"There's a concern about after-care, and how will the child make the bus connection," he said. "There's concern over not even knowing who the students' teachers will be, and there's concern about losing the instructional time, because the students have to be transported between schools in the morning, and in the afternoon."

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The influx of students and staff into Scotchtown Hills — about 40 pre-kindergartners, one teacher and one paraeducator, said Scotchtown Principal Tracie Prevost — is not expected to be an issue.

"We already have a classroom that was previously used for a pre-K class, so we are set up and ready to go," Prevost said.

Should the displacement last longer than a couple of weeks, Prevost said Laurel students and staff were welcome to stay longer if needed.

"We have the room for them, and we are more than happy to help our colleagues out," she said. "For us, the more important thing is that the students are able to go to school."

Construction deadline missed

Zuckerman said that Laurel had undergone two inspections this week, and the building has passed both. The construction wasn't complete when the contractor said it would be, he said.

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"What we were being told by the construction folks who were working on it, the contractors, is that they were going to hit deadline Wednesday or Thursday last week," he said. "And they didn't."

The construction at Laurel began in December 2010, and was initially expected to last only 18 months.

"The renovations at Laurel Elementary will result in a state-of-the-art facility," Prince George's Superintendent William Hite said in a release. "We will ensure that students and families experience minimal disruption during this temporary relocation. Although the work is taking a bit longer than expected, once it is finished, this will be one of the best-looking schools in the county."

For the school to be re-opened, Zuckerman said, there wasn't much left to be done. Students will still be attending a school under construction, with several grades being housed in temporary classrooms outside. As construction is completed, the students will be moved back into the building, which was always the plan, Zuckerman said.

Ultimately, PTA's Allred said, the school has handled the situation in the best way possible given the time frame. Others, however, have not handled it well, she said.

"(The school) has been waiting for guidance from the Board of Education on how they should handle the coming school year, and I'm not quite sure where the communication was with how the construction was going," Allred said. "It's a reflection on the school board for not having a decision made sooner."

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Zuckerman said that given time, the difficult situation would improve.

"Every day it's going to get better and better, and go smoother," he said. "Hopefully, we'll be back at Laurel soon."


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