New activity is breathing life into the old College Park Elementary School, closed in 1977 because of declining enrollment.
The building, its windows serving as targets for vandals, stood vacant for three years. It now has been substantially renovated, and already houses a center for preschool children and a county library branch. A computer learning center will open soon.
The city acquired the building from Prince George's County, and after a long search for a tenant, leased it to Early Learning Inc.
The Bethesda firm, which operates day-care centers at several Washington-area locations, hopes to attract the children of students attending the University of Maryland, according to Early Learning president Dennis Laskin. About 200 children already attend a day-care center the firm runs on the campus of Prince George's Community College.
Laskin said that the College Park preschool program opened last month but only a few children have enrolled so far. When it is in full swing, the program will be open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will have an enrollment of up to 80 children with a teacher-child ratio of 10 to one, he added. Children from 2 1/2 years through kindergarten age are accepted for a fee of $40 a month.
Under terms of the lease, Early Learning provides free space for the county library system's College Park branch, which had been crowded into a tiny room at the rear of the city's municipal building for nearly 15 years. At the school the library has more than half again as much space. The library move also frees badly needed space for city offices, according to City Administrator Leon N. Shore.
"We have picked up children, particularly," said assistant librarian Molly Holzbauer. "The children have no major thoroughfare to cross to get to us and it's quieter and much more low-key even though there's only 2 1/2 blocks difference."
Because the building needed extensive renovation, many would-be tenants were discouraged, Laskin said. He said he was able to finance the needed repairs because Early Learning received a federal Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) grant, which provided much of the labor at no charge to Early Learning. Early Learning is paying for materials, which Laskin estimated will come to between $50,000 and $100,000 when the work is complete.
Laskin said the building required new wiring and plumbing and "half the building had no hot water." All of the windows were replaced, he said, and repairs must be made in the basement multipurpose room, where water has leaked in.
When repairs are completed, the multipurpose room will be available for community meetings and functions, he said.
As more public schools are closed, the empty buildings are becoming an increasing problem for municipalities faced with policing them and finding tenants or new uses.
Nineteen elementary schools and one junior high have been closed by the school board since 1977, according to Brian J. Porter, a spokesman for the county schools.
Irv Smith, special assistant to Hogan, said the county government wants to sell the vacant school buildings to bring the land back onto the tax rolls. County officials have received bids on eight of the schools but have not completed a sale yet. The trouble, Smith said, is that many need extensive repairs and carry debts that must be paid off to the State Board of Education.
When the College Park City Council approved the lease to Early Learning, some residents were opposed. Mayor St. Claire Reeves, in a blistering letter to the City Council, charged that the school did not have enough parking to accommodate the increased use and would add to traffic congestion along already heavily traveled Calvert Road. Reeves, who lives next door to the school, complained that because Early Learning charges fees for its preschool and computer courses, it is a business which violates the noncommercial character of the neighborhood.
"I guess it could be considered commercial in a way, but it (Early Learning) is non-profit," Shore said. The computer course will begin sometime this summer, according to Laskin.