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New elementary school offers academic, physical excellence

Baltimore Sun Media Group
Lyons Mills Elementary opens doors to students Aug. 24

You can't miss Lyons Mill Elementary School. It fronts onto Lyons Mill Road, the lot on a slight rise from the street that makes the building look more massive than it is.

Faced in shiny red brick, not yet dulled by weather and age, it is laid out by grade "neighborhoods," the latest educational design, with a central two-story glass courtyard in between.

The Baltimore County Public Schools' kindergarten through fifth-grade school, at 9435 Lyons Mill Road, opened Aug. 24 for the 2015-16 academic year. This school year, Owings Mills will be getting not only a state-of-the-art building but a school with unique technology, innovative programs and a staff that couldn't be more enthusiastic.

"We are ready to go," Maralee Clark, Lyons Mill's principal, said from her temporary headquarters in New Town Elementary School's library a month before the opening date.

With funding split between county and state, the $31 million school will have solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, and a "green" roof that will be used as a teaching tool. It is aiming for LEED Silver certification, a renewable energy category.

Chief cheerleader

Clark, a 22-year veteran of BCPS, is a resident of and has spent her career in Owings Mills. If there is anyone left in Owings Mills who hasn't heard of the new Lyons Mill school, it's not her fault.

Over the summer, she and her faculty of nearly 50 have held parents nights that attracted hundreds of residents, sponsored community events, and even boarded a school bus and visited all the neighborhoods whose children will attend the school.

"We want parents and the community to feel part of the school. We want to create a student-centered learning environment," Clark said. "Our mission is to develop a collaborative culture."

Lyons Mill Elementary can accommodate 700 students — its state-rated capacity. Clark expects to open with 629 students this fall. The student demographic is projected to be 90 percent African-American, the remaining 10 percent from other ethnicities.

That demographic is similar to Woodholme Elementary School, a BCPS kindergarten through fifth-grade school that opened in 2005 with Clark as the principal. Woodholme, at 300 Mount Wilson Lane, was projected to be, and was, 80 percent African-American, a figure that stayed constant during her time there.

Under Clark's tenure, too, Woodholme Elementary was named both a Maryland Blue Ribbon School and a National Blue Ribbon School in 2012.

"It was a huge honor for a new school," said Clark, who went through a competitive process to be chosen Lyons Mill's opening principal.

Lyons Mill Elementary has been in the works for at least a decade, when BCPS planners began seeing a surge in enrollment in northwest Baltimore County. A BCPS study identified the need for 1,500 more elementary school seats in the northwest area by 2012, according to Paul Taylor, BCPS coordinator of strategic planning.

"The result of the study was a request for new schools — New Town Elementary [opened in 2001] and then Woodholme Elementary," Taylor said. "Lyons Mill Elementary will address that deficiency in seats."

The new school will also relieve overcrowding at New Town and Woodholme Elementary schools that Owings Mills' continuing housing boom has brought. Even before Lyons Mill opens, evidence of that boom is apparent. Large-scale townhouse developments are currently under construction on either side of the new school.

Clark said that Woodholme Elementary's state-rated capacity was 676. In 2005, the school opened with 575 students. Enrollment climbed by about 100 students per year. By its second year, 2006-07, Woodholme had 680 students. After being named to Blue Ribbon School status in 2012, enrollment jumped from 781 to 960 students by the time she left in June 2014.

"We had people moving into the neighborhood because of the Blue Ribbons," she said.

Last fall and spring, BCPS held a series of public meetings to define Lyons Mill's boundaries. The boundary committee of school personnel, teachers, parents and community representatives considered 10 options involving Church Lane, Deer Park, Hernwood, New Town, Owings Mills, Randallstown, Winand and Woodholme elementary schools.

At the time, Clark did not believe there would be opposition to whichever option was chosen. "The parents are thrilled. They've been waiting awhile for this," she said at one of the committee meetings.

Not everyone agreed. Hundreds of students are involved and, said Marsha White, the community member from New Town. "When you speak about assigning boundaries, parents get upset."

In the end, Lyons Mill's boundaries were set north of Interstate 795, south of Winands Road, east of Painters Mill Road and west of Owings Mills Boulevard and Lakeside Drive. Its boundaries are bisected by Lyons Mill Road. Said Clark, "300 of our students live within a half-mile of the school on either side of Lyons Mill Road."

Since the boundaries were chosen, the Board of Education approved them at a spring meeting. "It was a public hearing, and there were no objections," said the school system's Taylor.

Likewise, County Councilman Julian Jones Jr., whose 4th District encompasses the area, has not heard any objections to Lyons Mill Elementary's boundaries.

"When they change school boundary lines, I'm usually inundated with complaints," he said. "But I haven't heard about any contention about Lyons Mill. My impression is that the community is happy with it."

Lighthouse school

"This will be a school like no other,' said Clark, meaning not only the physical facility but the BCPS-designed academic programs.

Lyons Mill will be a Lighthouse School, one that leads the way in technological advances. Every student and teacher will have his or her own laptop or tablet, including kindergartners. It is only the second school in the BCPS system with that comprehensive arrangement.

Lyons Mill will also be a Passport School, which means fourth-grade students take an intensive Spanish language program they may continue the following year.

In addition, Lyons Mill will offer 20 clubs and activities, before and after the school day. "They're designed to enrich the academic program," Clark said. "Every child will have a chance to participate."

Alysia Falby's daughter, Madison, will transfer from Woodholme to Lyons Mill for fourth grade. Falby, who plans to run for Lyons Mill's PTA president, doesn't mind at all.

"I attended at least three parents meetings and the teachers were very progressive," she said. "Even with the new technology, they were interested in the whole child."

Josh Parker feels the same way. His two children, a daughter in second grade and a son in kindergarten, will attend Lyons Mill Elementary. His daughter was at Woodholme Elementary but Parker, who lives within Lyons Mill's boundaries, is pleased with the new school.

"It's under the direction of Clark. It has the same Lighthouse School program as Woodholme. It's more convenient to my home," Parker said. "I'm happy to be here, and happy with the staff."

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