With the start of school in Montgomery County, many students will face opening-day jitters Monday as they meet new teachers and classmates. But in Clarksburg, Md., there’ll be a first day of a rarer sort: A brand-new middle school makes its debut.
It has been more than a decade since the last one was built in the county.
Hallie Wells Middle School comes as another sign of surging enrollment in a fast-growing suburban district that ranks as Maryland’s largest. Planners expect 159,000 students in all, with an uptick of more than 2,000 students for an eighth consecutive year.
“I’m excited to be the first sixth-grade class,” said Natalya Clark, 11, who got a look at Wells during a welcome event last week. “Everything is brand new. We get to be the first.”
Principal Barbara Woodward said her staff of 71 is thrilled to be opening what she sees as a true community school. It will start with nearly 500 sixth- and seventh-graders, picking up eighth grade next year and expanding as Clarksburg continues to grow. A majority of students are considered walkers, and the PTSA already has more than 225 members.
“The community seems very excited for this to be their neighborhood school, and we really want to honor that,” Woodward said.
Two years ago, the 22-acre Wells site was an undeveloped field. Now it is a $42 million school with more than three dozen classrooms, a technology-friendly media center, a gleaming main gym and three auxiliary gyms.
“It is kind of astonishing,” said Orli Marshall, 11, a sixth-grader, comparing it with other schools she has known. “It’s just very open, and the ceilings are higher, and there are so many different ways you can go.”
Madeline Hanington, head of the new school’s English department, said teachers have great energy and high hopes about the year ahead.
“Everybody is open to fresh new ideas,” she said. “We really are thinking about how to engage students and keep them engaged in learning. We want this to be a place to grow and learn.”
Residents and educators laud the example of generosity set by Hallie Wells, for whom the school is named and who several decades ago donated 290 acres of land for open space and recreation that is now called Ovid Hazen Wells Recreation Park, in recognition of her late husband. Wells and her husband were federal workers who retired to Clarksburg to farm. Hallie Wells died in 1992.
“She did not want it to be developed,” said Brenda Graves, her great-grandniece who lived with Wells for about a decade. “She wanted it to be for the community. She was very active in her church and very community-minded.”
A school-naming committee unanimously supported Hallie Wells for the honor, and more than 1,200 community members signed an online petition supporting the idea. The county Board of Education gave its approval in March.
“She’s like Clarksburg’s grandmother,” said Rich Liu, a father of two who was a member of the naming committee. “The fact that she didn’t have any children and left her property so future Clarksburg families could benefit from it is remarkable.”
Woodward, the principal, called Wells “an extraordinary ordinary woman” and said many have been inspired as they have learned about her philanthropy and her valuing of green space.
Graves, who now lives in Tennessee, burst into tears when she heard about the naming.
“They could not have found a better way to honor her,” she said. “She was an educator herself before she got on a train and went to Washington.”
Parents who visited the school last week were upbeat. The last middle school to open in Montgomery was Lakelands Park, in 2005, in Gaithersburg. In Clarksburg, Wells will help relieve crowding at Rocky Hill Middle School, which was 300 students over capacity last year and had 11 portable classroom trailers.
As parent Randi Bluestein toured the school last week, she said she was excited to find such a bright, inviting place and noted that one of the auxiliary gyms — which she called an “American Ninja Warrior room” — includes a climbing wall and other apparatus. “The kids are going to have a blast with that,” she said.
Looking around for the first time, some students converged on the media center, with 13,000 print books and 2,000 e-books, in a spacious setting with comfortable chairs and prominent windows.
“I can’t wait to read all of them,” said Nina Raghavan, 12, as she and Eashana Subramanian, 12, looked around, sitting in new chairs and spotting things to read, such as “The Great Monkey Rescue.”
Both students, entering seventh grade, liked how much nonfiction was included beside all the good fiction.
“This is amazing,” said Nina’s father, Ramesh. “I’m awed.”
Another parent, Cindy Samandi, snapped a photo of her son, Ilario, at the school to post on Instagram. She said she appreciated the history about Wells.
“This is like a symbol of her love for kids,” Samandi said, “and how much we invest in this county for education for kids.”