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School coming to Ritchie site

March 14, 2000|By SCOTT BUTKI

CASCADE - Existing buildings at Fort Ritchie will be used for a planned college preparatory magnet school that will serve 535 students and create 175 jobs on the former Army base, it was announced Tuesday.

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Role Models America Inc., a Maryland-based national nonprofit organization, will operate the national demonstration program called Role Models America Academy, said Robert Alexander, the organization's founder and president.

The school will lease 254,000-square-feet of facilities on the former Army base from the PenMar Development Corp., the Maryland General Assembly-created organization charged with bringing in businesses to replace the 2,000 jobs lost when the base closed in September 1998.

The news was praised by U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md, U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and others.

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No new buildings will be built for the project, which is a major reason why the organization wanted to open the school at the former base, Alexander said.

"That's a miracle from God. It is so nice I call it God's paradise," he said.

The project has been in the works for seven or eight years, he said.

The lease is for one year with an option for a four-year renewal, PenMar Executive Director James LaFleur said. He would not disclose the amount of the lease.

PenMar will hold a public information meeting on the project March 27 at 7 p.m. at Lakeside Hall at the base, he said.

The academy will begin offering classes by this fall and, possibly this summer, LaFleur said.

The organization will give preference to local residents when hiring 175 employees ranging from support personnel to administrators, Alexander said.

Information on how to apply for the jobs will be available in a few weeks, he said.

Using the former Army base's 36 buildings and dining facilities and other structures, the school will establish an education complex with three dormitories, a chapel, gymnasium, theater, and classrooms , he said.

The students will be high school dropouts without criminal records who have demonstrated they have the aptitude and potential to finish high school and enter college, Alexander said.

Alexander stressed the academy is not a boot camp, but a program intended to help students get back on track so they can go on to college. If the program is successful, it will be the model for similar academies in other states, he said.

The academy will have 535 students. The enrollment structure will be similar to that of military academies, with each of the 435 U.S. representatives and 100 senators appointing one student.

The school program will be free to the students and their families, with Congress footing the bill for all Academy costs, Alexander said.

The academy will be certified to offer high school diplomas recognized in all 50 states.

The curriculum will include mandatory vocational classes in information technology at the school through a dual enrollment program with Hagerstown Community College.

The school will have a junior ROTC component, LaFleur said.

Role Models America is spearheaded by a dozen retired admirals and generals, former school superintendents and former cabinet-level government officials, including former Education Secretary Ted Bell, Alexander said.

PenMar's redevelopment plans have been on hold pending the Army's transfer of the land to PenMar, a move that's been delayed by environmental cleanup negotiations.

LaFleur has said restrictions that may be placed on the 638-acre property because of unexploded ordinance, including a prohibition on housing construction on some of the land, could make it impossible for PenMar to meet the goal of creating 2,000 jobs.

He said Tuesday he is confident the disagreements with the Army can be resolved by this summer.

Last week about 100 area residents complained during a public meeting that PenMar officials have not been forthcoming about their progress in developing the property.

"This is good news for the Army base. It is good news for Washington County. It is good news for the PenMar Corporation," Mikulski said.

"Washington County has scored a double coup, revitalizing Fort Ritchie and becoming a national center for an innovative effort to help our young people fulfill their dreams," said Townsend, chairwoman of the governor's Cabinet Council on Business and Economic Development.

"This national demonstration pilot program - supported by Congress with widespread public support and input - is designed to bring young people with no criminal record back to an intense, well-supervised, college-bound academic environment and equip them with the job skills they will need to compete in the modern, high-tech marketplace," Bartlett said.

"In the interest of seeing young people get the opportunities and education they need to succeed in the new century, I will monitor this program carefully and work with all involved to assure its success," he said.

"This could have happened anywhere in the country, but they chose to put it here," Townsend said.

Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission Director John Howard praised the academy's plans.

"This is a terrific re-use of Fort Ritchie's space," Howard said. "We are very pleased that the lease has been signed, and the project is moving forward."

Snook said the county was first approached by the group in 1996 and officials have been enthusiastic.

"We are very pleased that soon Washington County will be playing a pivotal role in what can become a model college-preparatory program for the youth of America. It will certainly add value to America's future and also to Washington County's future," Snook said.

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