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Possible school closure irks students, parents

November 18, 2002|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

CONOCOCHEAGUE - There are 263 students at Conococheague Elementary School.

The people who work, play and learn there know every last pigtail-pulling and lunch-trading one of them.

That's what they say they'll miss most about the school that's likely to shut down once its neighboring school gets a facelift.

The Washington County Board of Education plans to make its decision Tuesday whether to close Conococheague upon the completion of renovations to Maugansville Elementary School, which is not expected before August 2006.

"I feel frustrated that the Board of Education would decide to close our school," said third-grader Scott Hovermale, 8. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it."

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Conococheague rests its 42-year-old, red brick bones and pale painted awnings on a hill overlooking a plush hillside. Inside, things are anything but plush.

The school lacks a sprinkler system, air-conditioning, specialty instructional spaces and a security corridor, which prevents it from being "locked down." It has three portable classrooms and no separate gymnasium.

Parent Jan Hovermale said the condition of the elementary school is fine.

Hovermale, who runs the Conococheague After-School Center, said relationships students have with teachers and with each other shouldn't be broken up.

Her son's teacher sends notes home just to say he didn't seem like himself in class. The school nurse diagnosed his reported tummy ache as homesickness and prescribed a sick room chat instead of a ticket home.

"You can't have it any better than having a school that knows your child," Hovermale said.

Reading teacher Nancy Miller said she likes knowing all the children, but after teaching for a long time, she plans to go with whatever the School Board decides.

Others aren't as flexible. Pam Rubisch, 10-year library/media specialist at the school, said when she thinks of Conococheague, she thinks of her family.

"You know their families and their personal relationships," she said. Rubisch pointed to children who have brothers and sisters who attended the school. "You don't just know the student, but the person."

Rubisch said the rural community students won't adjust well in an environment double its size. Washington County Public Schools officials project once Conococheague and Maugansville are combined in 2006, about 540 students will share the renovated school.

The projected cost of the Maugansville renovation is $13.7 million, according to the Washington County Board of Education's capital improvement plan for 2004-08.

The School Board plans to assemble another redistricting committee to look at Conococheague and surrounding elementary schools - Clear Spring, Williamsport and Salem Avenue - to see how the kindergarten and first-grade students who will be affected by the closing should be spread out.

Now, about 95 percent of Conococheague students would go to Clear Spring middle and high schools, according to a consolidation consideration report compiled by Dennis McGee, director of facilities management.

Some Conococheague students ride about 45 minutes to school each morning. If the schools combine, parents fear the ride will be even longer.

The report said about 75 percent of Maugansville students go to Western Heights Middle School and eventually North Hagerstown High School.

Third-grader Zac O'Neal, 8, said, "Friends would be separated because if the only time they see friends is at school, then they won't get to see them outside of school."

His mother, Tina O'Neal, who also has a kindergarten student at the school, worries how her youngest child and classmates will feel when the switch happens, in fourth grade.

"They'll already be struggling with physical development. To throw them in a school they're not familiar with and then throw them in different middle schools isn't fair," she said.

Teresa Crowl, former Blue Ribbon Redistricting Committee member and Conococheague Parent Teacher Association vice president, said the School Board didn't follow the committee's suggestions to renovate both elementary schools and she is upset it has changed plans for the school so many times.

Crowl, who pulled information from her committee minutes, said Conococheague has four more acres of land than Maugansville's nine acres. Crowl said the redistricting committee was misled about this time last year to believe there is not enough land at either existing site for an expanded school. That was when the school system planned to build a new combined school, she said.

"Our parents are not happy about it, and we are not accepting of it," Crowl said.

Fifth-grader Casie Robertson, 10, said she, her 8-year-old sister, 4-year-old stepbrother and 5-year-old stepsister either are or will be going by special permission to Conococheague.

"I want my brother and sisters to go through this school because my mom and dad went to this school," Robertson said. She said after her family moved to Williamsport, she realized she was attached to the school.

Her mother, Christine Hoffman, said the school means everything to her, too. Hoffman and her daughter had the same first-grade teacher.

Teresa Crowl said she and neighbors of the school worry about what will happen to it once it's closed. McGee said in his report that once the school closes, it would be handed over to the Washington County Commissioners.

"Will it turn into a building with all the windows busted out?" Crowl asked.

Crowl's daughter Mandi, 10, said she hopes to point out the school to her children like her grandparents do now.

"It may not look like much to outsiders, but if you were here, you'd feel the same way," Hoffman said.

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