Montgomery students get new digs

By Alex Ruoff
The Gazette
Thursday, September 2, 2010; GZ18

Jeannie Kauffman and her three children represent two distinct generations of Garrett Park Elementary schoolers. Kauffman attended the school as did her daughter, Ashley, 13, who is now a seventh-grader at Pyle Middle School.

But Kauffman's son Jay, 4, won't attend the school, which was built in 1952 and is being demolished. Jay will attend a new $25.1 million replacement school designed to hold 661 students -- 206 more than the current facility -- and scheduled to be built during the next 18 months.

In the meantime, Kauffman's older son, Kevin, 10, this year will attend fifth grade in building known as the Grosvenor Holding Facility in North Bethesda.

The facility is one of five such sites that the Montgomery County public school system uses to house students and staff while schools undergo construction or renovation. Each is scheduled to be full until 2016, which is far as the system has planned its renovation and construction schedule.

"We're excited -- well, I know he's excited to be on the safety patrol," Kauffman said of Kevin. "It's going to be a really interesting experience."

The Grosvenor facility, which is about two miles from Garrett Park Elementary on Grosvenor Lane in North Bethesda, has 19 rooms in 36,770 square feet. Garrett Park Elementary School staff members moved into the building over the summer.

The school system began using holding schools by coincidence, said Bruce Crispell, director of the Division of Long-range Planning. Enrollment in county schools dropped by roughly 60,000 students in the late 1970s and early '80s as baby-boomers graduated, resulting in the closure of several schools. At the same time, a number of aging facilities were being rebuilt.

"We decided to move the students into the empty buildings" during renovations, he said. "It's been a system we've managed quite smoothly over the past 25 years."

Before using holding facilities, officials broke school renovation projects into stages in which portions of a school's population moved to other buildings or areas of the same building, causing overcrowding in some classes and higher costs for construction, Crispell said.

The money to maintain the centers comes from the maintenance budgets of the schools that occupy the buildings, school system spokesman Dana Tofig said.

Garret Park Principal Elaine Chang-Baxter said moving the school into the Grosvenor facility required two years of planning and was modeled in part on the experiences of the school populations that occupied the building before Garret Park: those of Bells Mill and Takoma Park elementary schools, which underwent renovations. Bells Mills students and staff members occupied the building during the 2008-2009 school year, and those of the Takoma Park school were in the building last school year.

In 2008, "I walked the site, got their safety plans and had to think about where my staff would go and how we'd fit the space we had," she said.

Garrett Park is bringing improvements to Grosvenor, in the form of two basketball hoops and backboards, as well as new playground equipment from the original school, Chang-Baxter said, adding that the material will be left at Grosvenor. The Garrett Park Elementary School sign and a portion of the playground equipment also were moved to Grosvenor. Three bus routes were added to bring the nearly 100 students who walked to school last year to the temporary school, Chang-Baxter said.

Garrett Park students and staff members are not alone this school year in occupying a holding facility.

Those from Cabin John Middle School in Potomac have occupied the Tilden Holding Center in Rockville since the beginning of the 2009-10 school year. They will remain there until the end of the school year, while a new Cabin John Middle School is built.

Paulette Smith, principal of Cabin John Middle, said she had some trepidation about the consequences of moving students from the school to the holding center.

"Our parents and our teachers didn't know what to expect from the move; we were glad it went well; nobody got left behind." she said, adding that the move did not affect students academically.

Garrett Park parents and students got their first tour of The Grosvenor Holding Facility on Aug. 18. Although the majority of classrooms were ready, construction materials and remnants of the former tenants, from Takoma Park Elementary, stood in the hallways.

If Jackson Buss, 6, even noticed, it was indiscernible. Walking through the halls of the building with his mother, he reacted to his new school with words such as "cool" and "wow."

"That's what is great about this age; nothing phases them," said his mother, Betina Buss of Garrett Park. "He just wants to ride the bus."

Buss said the promise of a brand new school next year makes it worthwhile.

"It's nice to know we'll have an all-new school to go to next year," she said. "I don't think he'll notice the move much."

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