Thursday, March 22, 2007

Open classroom space raises concerns

Some Carrolltowne Elementary parents question school’s access, fire hazards

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Bill Ryan⁄The Gazette
Classes in the second-grade suite at Carrolltowne Elementary are separated by portable bulletin boards to create individual learning areas. Some parents at the school are advocating for money from the county to create individual classrooms.
Carrolltowne Elementary School parents have been asking for nearly 18 years to have classrooms at the school enclosed and this year is not different.

The school has five ‘‘suites,” or open spaces of which each has the square footage equal to four classrooms, according to Martin Tierney, Carrolltowne Elementary principal.

Half of all kindergarten students as well as first-, second-, fourth- and fifth-grade students learn in the open spaces, Tierney said. Third-grade students are taught in three double portables that are comprised of six classrooms. More than 600 students attend Carrolltowne Elementary, which opened in 1976.

At the March 14 Carroll County Board of Education meeting in Westminster, several parents of Carrolltowne Elementary students raised concerns over the safety of the school’s open classroom design.

According to parent Cheryl Leupen, the concerns over Carrolltowne Elementary’s open classroom suites were raised 18 years ago.

Leupen, who has a child in the third grade at Carrolltowne, said safety is the main concern over the open classrooms.

While there are doors to each entryway in the school, there are no doors in between suites and no way to lock down the school in an emergency if an intruder enters the school, Leupen said.

Tierney disagreed, adding that Carrolltowne Elementary is ‘‘as safe as any other school,” and noted that the school has an emergency preparedness plan in place.

‘‘We believe our students are safe...and we have a plan in place to address different scenarios that could come into play,” Tierney said.

Carrolltowne Elementary has not had any serious situations inside the school, Tierney said, although the school’s crisis plan was recently enacted last year when a train car carrying chemicals derailed in Marriottsville.

Other safety concerns include the lack of fire doors in the suites, an outdated sprinkler system and the distractions in learning that could occur in an open classroom without solid walls.

Four years ago, the Carroll County Board of Education voted to include the enclosure of the school’s open classroom suites in its long range facilities plan but was passed over for funding several times, Tierney said.

The $3.6 million budget request for the enclosure includes the construction of interior partitions, exterior exits and fire sprinklers where they are required.

Carrolltowne Elementary is to be the first school on a list of five Carroll County schools to have their open classroom spaces closed, Tierney said.

For Mary Ellen O’Neill, a parent of two Carrolltowne Elementary students, the open classroom suites have poor acoustics, which can be distracting to students’ learning.

Tierney disagreed and noted that Carrolltowne Elementary students’ high scores on state and county assessments have shown otherwise.

‘‘When I look at that, I don’t think having open space is impeding our children because we’re certainly learning very well,” Tierney said.

Tierney also noted that there are positive aspects to open classroom suites such as the opportunity for more collaboration between students and teachers.

Still, O’Neill said she wants the Carroll County commissioners to hear parents’ message.

Commissioner Michael Zimmer (R) said it is a subject he knows firsthand. Zimmer, who is the Board of Education liaison, also has a daughter at Carrolltowne Elementary.

As a parent, the classrooms’ fire and safety hazards are the most important to him, Zimmer said.

The Board of Education’s funding request to enclose Carrolltowne Elementary’s classrooms will go through the county’s budget process, Zimmer said, although he admitted he was not sure what the answer would be.