Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

‘Portable City’ debuts as WJ undergoes renovation

Student safety is high on the principal’s watch list

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Chris Rossi⁄ The Gazette
Students leave class at Walter Johnson High School’s new ‘‘portable city” in Bethesda. Due to school renovations, 45 portable buildings have been installed on campus to replace everything from English classrooms to football locker rooms.
When Walter Johnson High School students returned to class on Monday their school had been turned upside down, the product of the 51-year-old school’s latest steps toward modernization.

The school now has 45 portable buildings dotting its campus, including 39 for academics, four for gym classes and two for football meeting rooms. The 39 classrooms create what Walter Johnson Principal Chris Garran called a ‘‘portable city.”

The school’s upgrade is slated to be complete in 2010. Currently, the school’s gymnasium, locker rooms and some classrooms are under construction, forcing classes into the portables. The school moved entire departments, including English and foreign language, outside.

‘‘We don’t want it to be seen as a sub-campus,” Garran said of the temporary buildings. ‘‘We designed it so that there isn’t a class division, like if we sent just the freshmen to the portables.”

Portable classrooms are spacious — more so than some school rooms — and are wired for everything from air conditioning to cable. The county also installed sets of restrooms for the ‘‘city.”

In addition to the portables, the school had to change other logistics to accommodate the modernization. During the renovation, volleyball and basketball teams will play their home games at Tilden Middle School. The school’s football team will still play at Walter Johnson, with two portables serving as locker rooms for the Wildcats and their opponents.

Much to the delight of students, time between classes has also been extended, from five minutes to seven, and class time will be shortened by one minute.

The modernization is needed to accommodate an ever-increasing student population. Montgomery County Public Schools expects Walter Johnson’s population to hit 2,200 by 2014, a 9 percent increase from the 2,013 students there this year.

Ongoing construction means safety issues for the school. Large swaths of the campus, off Rock Spring Drive in Bethesda, have been designated for construction and are off-limits to students. Despite the work done by the school to limit interaction between the students and construction, Garran recognized the difficulty the situation presents.

‘‘Any construction site will draw high school-age students,” he said. ‘‘It’s been a great combined effort to make sure kids don’t enter.”

Garran added that if students were found in the restricted areas, they would be disciplined by not only the school, but could also be cited by police for trespassing.

Despite the construction, some of the school’s students are enthusiastic about the changes.

On the first day of classes Monday, senior Rafi Moersen, 17, walked around the portables, chanting ‘‘Wooo portables! Port-ab-les! Port-ab-les!”

Still he was realistic about inevitable pitfalls.

‘‘When it’s rainy it’ll be a hassle, and when it’s snowing it’ll be even worse,” he said. ‘‘But what can you do about it? You just have to be patient.”

One senior, though, sees opportunity. Michael Schwartz, Student Government Association president, is proposing a new fundraiser at the school, which is known for its creativity in that arena. He is hoping to sell Walter Johnson ponchos.

Garran has a different approach: ‘‘I’m hoping for a mild winter,” he said.

The gymnasium and locker rooms should be completed by next August, Garran said, with the academic areas complete by next fall.

Construction will then begin on the next phase, which includes renovations of more classrooms and a new main entranceway.