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Parents Briefed on Bells Mill Modernization

Architects present design drawings in the last of five parent meetings.

Students at Bells Mill Elementary have to wait until August 2009 to enjoy their brand new, modernized school building, but parents got a sneak peak of the new facility at a PTA meeting on Oct. 3.

During the first major PTA meeting of the year, about 60 parents, teachers and community members watched a slide show of the Bells Mill design plans and listened as the school system’s director of construction and the lead architect for the project detailed revamped floor plans and new amenities for the 75,000 square-foot modernization project.

At 474 students, the 38-year-old school is now overcrowded by 163 students. In the wake of mold problems that shut down portable classrooms in the spring, parent groups arranged a compromise with the school system to move up Bells Mill’s modernization schedule in exchange for using the design for the 640-student school originally planned as a replacement school for Seven Locks Elementary on the Kendale Road site. The school system will fill the much larger, modernized Bells Mill by redistricting students from nearby Potomac Elementary, which is also overcrowded.

This year, Bells Mill Elementary and Potomac Elementary each have eight portable classrooms. Water leakage was discovered in the portables of both schools within the first weeks of school, but the trailers were promptly repaired.

Though “core spaces” in the school such as the cafeteria, media center, multipurpose room and administrative offices are designed for 640 students, there will only be classroom space for 609. Enrollment is not expected to exceed the latter number, but if it does, the school system can add rooms later to bring the classroom capacity up to 640.

THE TEAM of architects have honed in on a single design plan for Bells Mill with the help of input from “stakeholders” such as parents, teachers, staff members and neighbors through a series of five meetings over the last three months. Color was a sticking point early in the meetings, with parents questioning the use of four earth-toned hues for the color palette. However, color was barely discussed at the Tuesday night meeting, save for a reference to the “red school house motif” created by doors painted a burnt red.

Merry Eisner is the PTA president-elect, and she will lead the parent group when Bells Mill students are relocated to Grosvenor in 2007. She said that the color controversy was fueled by inaccurate design renderings that have since been corrected.

“The version everyone saw in the last meeting was more toned down and more attractive,” she said. “At that point, the vast majority of the people really liked the look of the multi-colored building.”

The design process, which began in June, will take 18 months to complete. Construction, which is also expected to run 18 months, will begin in early 2008 and finish by August 2009. Demolition of the current building will take place about four months into construction. Approval of the design is pending from the Board of Education and the state Department of Education.

At the Tuesday night meeting, teachers and community members viewed a slide show of aerial views of the building, as well as floor plans and views from different angles.

“The general architecture of the building is one that incorporates slope-roofed elements with normal flat roof elements to make it more child-friendly, more user-friendly, with the concept of an educational village rather than just one institutional block,” said Mike Poness, principal of WMCRP Architects, a firm that oversaw the design of Bethesda Elementary.

“We wanted to break down a very large building to make it look smaller and more in scale with neighborhood – the roof forms are somewhat similar to what’s found in the area,” he continued. “It’s a notion of ‘This is an elementary school, a friendly school, please come, we welcome you.’”

James Song, director of the division of construction for Montgomery County Public Schools, said that the architects considered the day-to-day needs of teachers, staff and students in making decisions about the design.

“The administration [offices] are out front to be able to supervise the bus loop and the [student] drop off,” he said. “Public spaces… are at the front half of the building… so when there are evening meetings, we can secure parts of the building without compromising security…. The music rooms are very close to the stage so kids don’t have to haul their instruments across the school.”

Two classroom wings are located in the back of the two-story building, and administrative space, specialized areas and play areas are closer to the front of the building. The pre-kindergarten classroom is also near the entrance.

The modernized building will be much more spacious than the current one.

“Overall I’m very pleased,” said Eisner. “All the children will be inside the building…. I love the idea of the media center being where it is, and I cannot even imagine how large it will be – I think that space is larger than our current all-purpose room.”

BELLS MILL currently has an entrance for buses and car traffic, which caused congestion and parental consternation. The new design provides distinct parking areas so that the school buses will be completely separate from car traffic.

There are currently about 48 parking spaces at Bells Mill, even though the school has 65 faculty members. The modernized school will have more than 80 parking spaces, and a hard-surface playground area can be used for overflow parking on the nights of special events, bringing the total maximum parking spaces to 160.

Playground areas will be resurfaced and a special kindergarten play area will be designated. Poness said that the school may be able to achieve an additional ball field through re-grading of the soil.

“Is the gym a definite or is that an add-on?” asked Marion Cantor, co-chair of the Bells Mill PTA’s facilities committee.

Song said that the gymnasium is likely but not certain. There are currently 33 elementary schools without gymnasiums in the county. The master plan calls for funding for gym construction at all 33 by 2012.

“We have funding for design only at this point,” he said. “The gymnasium comes from another pot of money separate from the modernization money.”

Song said that if the gym is built, it will not have air conditioning, though it will have air circulation. Song said that this is true of all elementary school gyms in the county, except for those that double as stages for events.

Eisner is confident that the gym will be built. She said that her gratitude that the renovations are finally happening overshadows disappointment about the lack of air conditioning or any other deficits in the design.

“If they’re not going to build [the gym] with air conditioning, I’ll still take it,” she said.

“This will be life outside of portable classrooms, in a brand new building, with brand new bathrooms – life with the possibility of a [car] pick-up line so we don’t have to stand outside to wait for our children. On days like today we stand in the rain.”