The Washington Post

First day of classes brings 202nd school to Montgomery

Parents and new students enter the lobby of Wilson Wims Elementary School during an open house on Friday, August 22, 2014 in Clarksburg, Maryland. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

When school starts Monday in Montgomery County, the firsts will accumulate quickly at Wilson Wims Elementary School.

The school bell will ring for the first time, signaling the start of the day. Teachers will give lessons in just-built classrooms. Students will eat in a cafeteria in which lunch boxes have never been opened and rush to a playground that has never hosted recess.

“It’s pretty much a brand-new experience for everyone,” said Sean McGee, the principal who expects to welcome 650 students Monday morning into the gleaming hallways and classrooms of Montgomery’s newest public school on Blue Sky Drive in Clarksburg, Md.

The $23.6-million campus opens on what is the first day of school for students in both Montgomery and the District.

Other area school systems will soon follow, with Prince George’s County schools starting Tuesday and Northern Virginia’s school systems opening after Labor Day.


The 202nd school in Montgomery County, Wims is another sign of increasing growth in the upcounty area at a time when planners expect a record enrollment of more than 154,000 students.

The school also is a reflection of wide interest in new learning approaches. In the spirit of small-group collaboration, no student desks are on campus. Students sit six to a table in chairs that have storage beneath the seat; their coats and backpacks get stowed in hallway lockers.

At Wims, Montgomery’s new technology initiative will be fully underway. All students will encounter classroom-based digital devices this year, with third- and fourth-graders using Chromebook laptops, while younger children work on Android-based tablets.

“It’s really cool,” said Erin Prange, a second-grade teacher. “We have to make our instruction the primary focus, and then with technology, we look at how it will enhance what we’re already doing.”

Many teachers took training this summer to prepare them for incorporating technology into their lessons. Several teachers said the principal has encouraged educators to stretch themselves and take risks as they seek the best methods for engaging students.

“It’s definitely going to be a one-of-a-kind school in Montgomery County,” said Kristi Ricca, the third-grade team leader.

Jennifer Seidel, the second-grade reading initiative teacher, said that on the August day when teachers were first invited to set up their classrooms, “I popped right out of bed, like a kid on Christmas.” Her fellow teachers are similarly excited, she said: “I think that’s going to spread to the students.”

Many Wims students have been reassigned from crowded Little Bennett and Cedar Grove elementary schools. They will learn from a staff of 65 and frequent a media center with 15,000 neatly arranged, never-read books.

In the principal’s office one recent day, McGee had a copy of the children’s book “Going Places,” which is how he says he thinks of the path ahead.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to try something new and different,” he said.

The ideal, he said, is to get students so excited that they talk about school at the family dinner table in the evenings.

Not that there won’t be glitches or adjustments along the way, he said.

“Everyone has their expectations of what it should look like,” said McGee, who was the principal of Damascus Elementary. “But within that challenge is an opportunity for us to build our traditions and routines and our school culture.”

Such enthusiasm has made fans of many parents.

“There is a nice buzz in the neighborhood for sure,” said Wendy Davis, who was elected PTA president last spring in preparation for the first year of school. “I would say people are very excited and willing to volunteer and help and be involved.”

Construction at Wims began in January 2013, and McGee was selected a year later. He then began interviewing candidates for teaching and staff positions.

Teachers have transferred from more than 30 Montgomery schools to teach at Wims, and McGee said that everyone will create a vision together.

“They aren’t coming into it, they are building it,” he said.

The school was named in late March for F. Wilson Wims, a prominent African American builder and community leader in Montgomery County who was born in Clarksburg and became deeply involved in youth sports there. Wims died in February at age 98.

The school name was no small honor to Wims’s family. In late July, his daughter, Frances Foreman, 76, stood at the edge of campus to photograph her father’s name on the building. “I was so excited,” she said. “I can’t tell you. I was elated.”

In some form, the Wims experience is being replicated in the region’s other school systems as other new schools open.

In Prince George’s, the new Edward M. Felegy Elementary is in Hyattsville. In Loudoun, three new schools are slated to open their doors: Rock Ridge High School, Trailside Middle School and Cardinal Ridge Elementary.

In Fairfax, Bailey’s Upper Elementary will open — as a second campus for overcrowded Bailey’s Elementary — and in Alexandria, a new campus will open for Jefferson-Houston School.

In Clarksburg, work crews were still busy at the school in August. But one after another, jobs were completed.

“It takes communication and organization,” McGee said. “It takes a lot of energy. For me, it was a lot of fun.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.



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