Inspiration came to 16-year-old Patrick Gilbert during a computer science class at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City last year.
He was at his desk when he heard the sound of dripping water. He glanced at the ceiling just in time to see a tile panel cave in and water gush from a broken pipe, splattering the unlucky students sitting nearby.
That was the last straw. Every day, he walked hallways where tiles were broken or missing. Doors to the bathroom stalls didn't lock. Mice were so common that students had begun naming them. So when his friend Ryan Tompkins, 15, told him of plans to do an investigative report on conditions at the school for a television production class, Gilbert gladly signed on to help.
Their project has been a year in the making. The teenagers, along with friend Chris Rodkey, 16, unveiled their video last week during a public hearing on the school system's capital budget.
"Our physical plant here is crumbling," Gilbert says in the video. "To say it doesn't reflect our spirit and pride is quite an understatement."
Dozens of students and parents -- including one person dressed as a Viking, the school mascot -- attended the meeting wearing the school colors of yellow and black to support the teenagers' initiative. The school board is scheduled to vote on the capital budget tonight. And the students hope their message was loud and clear: Mount Hebron needs help.
The school's plight mirrors that of other older schools in fast-growing Howard County. School officials have focused their attention on keeping pace with the district's burgeoning population over the past decade. Three high schools have opened in Howard in that period, and another high school was completely rebuilt. Less than six miles from Mount Hebron, a $40 million high school is being built. It is scheduled to open in August.
Older schools, meanwhile, have had to wait for maintenance and repairs. Plans for renovations at Howard High, the county's oldest high school, have been in the works since 2002. The school is slated to be completely overhauled by 2007 at a cost of about $30 million.
Mount Hebron is almost 40 years old and was built as a middle school. It has nearly 1,600 students, one of the largest enrollments in the district. The school was last renovated in 1999, but Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said that to bring it up to par with the newest high schools would require rebuilding the school. That would cost $20 million, he estimated.
The teenagers have affectionately dubbed their school "the factory," named for the cooling tower that rises up behind the building and resembles a smokestack. In contrast, some of the county's newest high schools resemble "mini-malls," Rodkey said.
Their video takes viewers on a tour of the school and its flaws. Inside the boys' locker room, several locker doors are bent or rusty. Some lockers don't have doors at all. The curtains in the auditorium are ragged and some don't reach the floor. One curtain is held up by duct tape. The video also shows two temperature readings inside the school the same day -- one is 52 degrees; the second, 94.
And then there are the rodents. Twenty-one mice were caught in the principal's office over the summer, Tompkins said.
"Everyone remembers the mouse that fell out of the ceiling last year," Gilbert says in the video. "You kind of lose your appetite when you see one scurry around the cafeteria."
The videotape ends with a question that rolls across the screen: "How long is this going to last? We need help!"
Mount Hebron is not scheduled to receive major renovations under the capital budget the board is to vote on tonight. School officials said some of the problems could be handled immediately with little cost. Tompkins said he has seen improvements since he and his friends presented their video last week -- the bathroom doors now have locks. Still, school officials said fixing major problems would take several years.
The videographers may have long departed Mount Hebron by then. Still, they hope their project has at least put Mount Hebron on school officials' radar.
People think, "'it's just a missing tile, no big deal, nobody cares,' " Rodkey said. "But with the right people helping, the right supporters, we can get something done."