For most of the seven years Janice Beattie has had children enrolled in Aspen Hill Elementary School, the school has been as much a center of her life as of her children's. She has gone to school to read to the students, chaperoned trips to the zoo and helped the children make cornbread at Thanksgiving.
The school is within walking distance of her home, convenient for her children and for her. It has been "the ideal situation," she said.
In December, Montgomery County school officials recommended the closing of Aspen Hill as part of county-wide effort to shut down schools in areas of declining enrollment. The residents in the Aspen Hill section are doing what parents all over the metropolitan area are doing in response: fighting it with everything they've got.
It is more to them than just a matter of convenience. That's the obvious part. For some parents, the neighborhood schools have functioned also as community centers and informal town halls. The playing fields have featured after-hours softball games and the hallways have often been neighborhood art-galleries.
Residents with and without children have perceived the school as a boost to their property values. The closing of a school is doubly threatening because residents are often uncertain of how, the building will be used. Often baseless rumors inevitably surface. The building might become a halfway house for ex-convicts or drug addicts, it is said, or might sit abandoned for years and become the target of vandalism.
Eighteen of Montgomery County's 209 schools have been closed over the past five years because of declining enrollment and few issues have caused as much agitation.
Residents of the area surrounding English Manor Elementary School in Rockville say that their school - now recommended for closure - was a major factor in building a cohesive community.
The area has no churches, no community hall and no separate civic associations. The school's parent-teacher association has assumed some of that roll according to PTA president Janet Pitchersky.
"It's almost like a town hall up there," said Pitchersky about the school. Last year, when several young girls were raped and assaulted in the area the PTA organized a meeting with the police for all the community residents.
"When the police got more information on the situation after the meeting, they would call me," said Pitchersky, "and I would call block parents and then they would call others on the block."
Whenever an issue was raised - a new road or a new recreation center - the PTA planned the mmetings to discuss them. "You can't set up a meeting like this in a house," said Pitchersky.
"In another school's PTA, I don't think (our) interests would be served. We would be absorbed into another community. Here we're not just a community, we're a neighborhood."
That community spirit was not always there, according to Bill Pratt, a statistician who lives in the community with his wife and two daughters. "A few years ago, there was a tension in the school," Pratt recalled. "People from different backgrounds were coming into the school. The school was starting progressive programs that many people didn't understand."
Pitchersky said the PTA worked hard to foster communication among the community and between the parents and the school staff. Now, the residents proudly talk about the open classrooms and team-teaching in the school. "Now, we have a school-that-belongs-to-us feeling," said Pratt.
Pratt's youngest daughter graduated from English Manor three years ago, and he has no more children in the school. But he stays in touch by going back to occasional school events likt PTA fund-raising dinners and art craft shows at the school and by doing research for the English Manor local evaluation committee.
Residents worry about what will happen to a communtiy with an empty school building. Rumor about the uses for the school persits. "What if an alcoholic rehabilitation center moves in," said Pitchersky of the English Manor building. "What will that do to my property value?"
"The Girl Scouts meet" at Aspen Hill, said Janice Beattie. "The Cub Scouts play softball there. Will all wants a boarded-up school in their midst."
According to Jim Boston, the county planner, who oversees former school buildings any new occupants must agree in the lease to provide facilities for recreation and community events currently taking place. "If the communities indicate their needs, we assure their needs," Boston said.
Boston said some schools already closed are being used for health centers, recreation centers, and private schools. Boston said there's no gurantee a school will be filled with a new tenant immediately. "And empty buildings will be vandalized," he said. "Our objective is to get them occupied as soon as possible."
Before any schools are closed, school Superintendent Charles M. Bernardo and his staff recommend schools that should be studied for closure. Based on those studies and discussions with the communities, the superintendent recommended in late December that six more schools be closed.
The school board held public hearings the recommendations and has alreadly voted to close three of the schools the superintendent recommended: Woodley Gardens and Maryvale Elemenatry Schools in Rockville and Holiday Park Elementary in the Kensington-Wheaton area.