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Weighing in on Bells Mill Design

Some parents worry that the elementary school could reach capacity soon after opening.

About 30 parents and community members attended a meeting on July 25 to view plans for the modernization of Bells Mill Elementary in 2009. While pleased with the plans for upgraded facilities, some were unhappy with the unconventional design of the building and what they considered too little space for growth. Bells Mill, which is expected to have 475 students in the fall, will be about 164 children over capacity.

The project is called a modernization but will actually involve demolishing the existing structure, which was built in 1968. The cost is about $17.5 million.

Redistricting will shift some students from Potomac Elementary and Seven Locks Elementary to Bells Mill, and the modernized school will hold 609 students. Space is available for two classroom additions, which would bring the capacity of the school to 640.

Parents worried that the school could become overcrowded quickly.

“If you think we’re going to have 609 students on day 1, [two future classrooms to bring capacity to 640] is not a big cushion,” said one mother. “I don’t want to walk in and have trailers in a brand new school.”

Adrienne Karamihas, capital budget team leader for Montgomery County Schools’ division of construction, said that Bells Mill is unlikely to reach 609 students after the redistricting that will take place the year before Bells Mill reopens. “[640] actually is a big cushion,” she said.

THE DIVISION is debating whether to go ahead and build the additional classrooms now or to come back and do it later. At the meeting, parents strongly favored building the two extra rooms immediately. They said that this would better ensure against overcrowding and be more cost-effective in the long run.

Alexis Bakos, whose daughter graduated from Bells Mill this past year and whose son will attend in 2007, said that severe overcrowding has made parents “highly sensitized” to capacity issues. When trailers had to be closed down because mold had made students sick, Bakos said that her daughter was taught on the floor in a utility room, and that some special ed students had class in the hallway.

“They had her in some sort of storage room,” said Bakos. “My daughter didn’t have a desk. They all had to sit on the floor because they couldn’t get a desk in. She wasn’t happy – it makes for a very stressful time for children. I personally noticed that her homework level dropped off.”

Karamihas said the school division had to weigh the likelihood of whether Bells Mill would reach capacity or level off short of 640 students. She said she would report the parents’ preference to the division, but that it would not be the deciding factor.

“We have a demographer … who does calculations based on births and other trends,” she said. “He takes all that into consideration when he does his projections. He’s 99.7 percent accurate county-wide, and that’s pretty good for almost 200 schools.”

Karamihas said that local residential development does not necessarily mean large numbers of children are pouring into the school system. Factors such as the type of housing play a large role.

“The yields from a condo or townhouse are not the same as from a single-family home,” she said.

“Last year [the demographer] projected us at 468, and we had 468,” said Jerri Oglesby, principal of Bells Mill Elementary.

SCHOOL OVERCROWDING was not the only concern at the meeting. Parents also debated the school’s appearance.

The school designs, which were originally intended for the Kendale Road site, are the culmination of a two-year process, and they have already been finalized and approved by the County Council.

Montgomery County Schools representatives were only willing to take suggestions in specific areas since a facility committee made up of Bells Mill administrators, teachers, PTA members and parents have already approved the “internal building floor plan,” according to James Song, director of construction for MCPS. He said that the issues “still on the table” include exterior colors, parking lots, playground equipment, ball fields and logistics like parent drop off location and pedestrian access.

The architects envisioned the exterior of the school as painted in earth tones, largely sandy and tan. They planned to paint other sections of the building in muted red and other sections in muted green.

The unorthodox design has a rustic, almost farm-like quality. One parent said it reminds them of architecture in Williamsburg.

WMCRP Architects has considered making the Bells Mill design their new protocol for elementary buildings in the school district they serve. However, some parents were not pleased with the unconventional appearance evidenced in the plans. A few cringed at the architectural drawings passed around the room.

“I don’t get the color,” said Bakos. “What ruled the vision behind that?”

“It’s an elementary school, and we believe it can teach kids,” said architect Mike Poness of WMCRP Architects, a firm based in Landover. “You can take kids around the school and have them find colors, triangles and rectangles.”

Bakos was pleased overall with the design, but she remained critical of the color.

“There was a part of me that didn’t want to just hop on the color – it almost seemed superficial compared with other more pressing issues regarding the building,” she said in an interview after the meeting. “But when told it was one of the few areas where we would have influence, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, let’s revisit this issue of the color.’”

Bakos said the color scheme reminded her of a “multicolored playground set.”

“I think a multicolored playground set is a concept appropriate for a jungle gym, but not necessarily a large public building that has to coexist with a residential neighborhood,” she said.

“I think what people are concerned about is people driving around the neighborhood ten years from now and saying ‘What were they thinking?’” said one father.

“It’s actually carefully thought out – there’s composition and color balance here,” said the architect. “But we’re happy to bring back variations for the group if that’s what everyone wants.”

Several parents suggested design changes.

“What’s on the table is color and the type of siding,” said Poness.

Laurie Halverson, president of the Bells Mill PTA, is pleased with the design.

ÒI guess most people are used to seeing a brick institutional building, and this is not a brick building and it has various colors,Ó she said. ÒSome of them thought they would be more involved in the decision-making process. At this point I don’t think you can change the whole building to a brick building. I guess some people thought they were coming in at beginning stages.

THE ARCHITECTURAL FIRM did win parent approval for their plans to upgrade features like the school parking lot and media center.

Parents cheered when Poness said that the bus loop and the parking lot would have separate entrances. A road for service trucks will branch off of the bus area, which should also cut down on congestion in the parking lot where parents drop off and pick up students.

“Do me a favor,” said one mother. “For the benefit of the room, read the number of parking spaces available.”

“98 parking spaces,” said the architect, to claps and cheers.

There are currently about 48 parking spaces at Bells Mill, even though the school has 65 faculty members.

The interior spaces in the new school will be more spacious and modern.

“I love the way quite a few of the rooms are going to have cathedral-type ceilings, which you couldn’t have in a box-style school,” said Halverson. “There’s an atrium with a lot of windows, and the media center has a cathedral-style ceiling.”

Other features included in the modernized Bells Mill:

* An expanded second floor, which will house an upgraded media center. An elevator will allow handicap accessibility.

* One pre-kindergarten class, four kindergarten classes, and 21 classes for grades 1 through 5.

* There will be a special cluster of three classrooms to house the current autism program. Two of the classrooms will share a private bathroom.

* The large entrance was designed so that teachers will have “the potential to oversee the whole arrival sequence” of the students.

* Related arts classes such as art and music will be clustered around a courtyard.

* The preschool classroom will be located in the front of the building. “We don’t want them to have to be transversing through the school,” said Poness.

* There will be special play areas for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students.

* There will be a room for PTA storage.

* An enlarged administrative suite will feature an office for an assistant principal.

The gymnasium is a pricy construction “add-alternate” that will be paid for out of a separate budget. It is still expected to be constructed on time along with the rest of the building. Karamihas said that the school system does not foresee problems for the gym funding.

Another add-alternate is an energy-efficient geothermal well field. This would be very expensive to construct, but it would eventually save more money in energy costs. A school in Germantown with a geothermal well was expected to make up the cost of the well in energy savings over 13 years.

“The returns have come back sooner because of increases in energy costs,” said Song.