Hagerstown Grace Brethren Church provides refuge after school fire

March 15, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN -- A church has opened its doors to Washington County students whose school burned this month.

Hagerstown Grace Brethren Church on Spruce Street had "full confidence" it could offer space for Antietam Academy's high school, Senior Pastor Harald Bjerga said.

"It meets the mission of our church," he said.

Washington County Public Schools accepted the invitation, and the school has a new home for the rest of the academic year. About 46 or 47 students moved into the church last Monday, along with about 13 employees.

Williams said students adapted well and even helped set up their new classrooms at the church.

Antietam Academy, for students who have had trouble in a regular school setting, is split into two parts. The high school, which burned, is on South Hagerstown High School's campus. The middle school is on the Western Heights Middle School campus.


The school system already was planning to build a school to house both middle and high school students at Antietam Academy before the fire occurred on March 2. The school board is scheduled to review construction documents on Tuesday.

The new school would open behind E. Russell Hicks Middle School in the fall of 2010. School officials haven't had a chance to figure out where the high school will operate this fall.

The fire broke out in the Antietam Academy high school building when a plumber using a soldering torch on a copper pipe burned through a wall.

Principal Ike Williams said school was delayed two hours that day, so students and staff weren't there.

The fire was difficult to face.

"To see all that black smoke coming out," Williams said.

Some offices and old records were destroyed. Current records were saved but needed a healthy dose of air freshener to cover the smell of the fire.

South High took in Antietam Academy high school students that week.

About 13 or 14 buildings inside and outside the district were considered as temporary new homes for the school, Deputy Superintendent Boyd Michael said last week.

After the fire, Antietam Academy staff members were encouraged to suggest new locations. The Tri-State Fellowship church and Hagerstown Community College's Valley Mall classrooms were among the ideas considered, said Clyde Harrell, the school district's director of secondary education.

W. Princeton Young, a social worker at the school, noticed Hagerstown Grace Brethren, less than a mile away, as he was driving past one day. With Bjerga's permission, he stopped in for a look.

"This was the best we could get in the right area," Harrell said.

In the church, tables were pushed together, computers were set up and books brought in from other schools to get Antietam Academy quickly in operation again.

The new space has advantages, Williams said.

Antietam Academy's high school had three parts -- a two-floor main school building and two portable classrooms.

At the church, the school is in one cluster, on one floor.

"Here, we can keep eyes on everybody," algebra teacher Josh Fretz said.

He said students no longer have to shuttle back and forth between portable classrooms during the day and don't have to walk over to South High for lunch.

"This is, in my opinion, much better," Williams said.

Williams said they have eight classrooms, for English, science, math and art instruction, plus rooms for special education and counseling, and a lounge. Williams has an office, too.

The church's day-care program is on the second and third floors.

Bjerga said the church wasn't using the first-floor rooms, so adapting to the arrangement was not difficult.

"It's been a good working relationship so far," he said.

The Herald-Mail Articles