Sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover, or at least a building. Parents at the new Patterson Mill Middle High School in Bel Air have plenty of concerns about the walkways, fields and facilities on school grounds. Meetings with school officials are ongoing. But now that the building has been open for a year, it turns out there are problems on the inside too.
The school might have some of the latest technology, but something as simple as lockers are scarce. Patterson Mill was planned to handle 1,600 students and 1,672 lockers were installed. But the current state rated capacity is 1,763, meaning the school will be 91 lockers short when full enrollment is reached, which is likely to happen next year. Sharing lockers will be tough. They’re short, small and stacked in twos.
But the more pressing problem is crowding: surprisingly, current enrollment is not the cause. On the second floor where the high school is housed, there’s only one thoroughfare connecting all of the classrooms. When each period ends, students have to converge on that pathway and literally shuffle along in a sea of humanity to get to the next class. And that’s with only 9th, 10th and 11th graders in the school. Next year when all four grades are in place, the hallways will look like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, minus the frivolity.
In 2004, Harford County Government appropriated a million dollars or so to correct a similar problem at Fallston Middle School in response to long-standing complaints about crowding. That was going on at around the same time Patterson Mill was being planned – what happened to ”lessons learned”? More importantly, why was a school designed with isolated cul-de-sacs connected to one main hallway in the first place? The answer might be found in just two words: Career Clusters.
The concept is another doozy from the Maryland State Department of Education that tries to funnel 14-year-olds onto a career path. Harford County Public Schools went one step further and foolishly built the idea into the design of Patterson Mill. The thinking was that classes in a particular Career Cluster could be set up in the same corridor, so students wouldn’t travel as much as they do in a typical high school. I attended the planning meetings and remember the discussion. Red flags were raised at the time, but the plan rolled on and so far, it’s a bust.
What’s curious is that the Board of Education didn’t approve the specifics for Career Clusters until they were adopted as part of CSSRP in 2005, but the minutes from the planning meetings show the concept had a booster as far back as 2003 when the layout of the building was being considered. Two years before the Board of Education’s vote, Executive Director of Secondary Schools Dave Volrath presciently outlined three broad Career Clusters for Patterson Mill which is the same number of cul-de-sacs jamming up the school today.
School-based administrators at Patterson Mill are trying to find fixes, but what if the fix requires money? That’s a problem because what little was available was transferred out of the school’s capital account to pay for other projects before the dust had settled on Patterson Mill. As parents work with school officials to identify options, it’s worth telling the story if only because new high schools are coming soon to Edgewood and Bel Air. Thankfully, the design of those schools mirrors Aberdeen High School more than Patterson Mill and while all of these projects were greatly needed and enthusiastically received, the experience at Patterson Mill means parents and other taxpayers might not want to assume that’s the end of the story.