School may be out for students, but it's definitely in for building crews as they near completion on the latest elementary school in the Howard County district — a $34 million, 10-acre, two-story facility in Elkridge that's scheduled to open in time for the coming school year.
County officials say the 600 students at Ducketts Lane Elementary will enroll in one of Howard's most environmentally sophisticated school buildings, with hands-on offerings that help make the facility a teaching tool at virtually every turn.
Some students might choose to write reports on the building of the school itself — it's been a civics lesson, complete with land acquisition delays, legal proceedings, complaints about congestion and protests about lack of input from area residents.
Those planning for the new school also endured changes in education specifications and two railway-related delays before construction began a year ago.
Those issues are behind the school system, said Ken Roey, Howard County schools executive director of facilities planning and management. He said Ducketts Lane is about 80 percent complete; the mechanical components are installed, and last week builders were working on roofing and windows.
When complete, Ducketts Lane will be the first school the district has built since Veterans Elementary in Ellicott City and Bushy Park Elementary of Glenwood in 2007. It's designed to address growth and development along the county's U.S. 1 corridor, with overcrowding at Elkridge, Bellows Spring, Rockburn and Waterloo elementary schools.
"The pluses are that it's going to be a really exciting new school … a fabulous environmental design," said Roey. He said Ducketts Lane Elementary will be the first school in the county to receive Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization that offers a rating system for environmentally conscious building strategies.
The school uses a geothermal heating and cooling system, a pumping system that uses ground temperature for heating during the cooler months and cooling during the warmer months.
Bruce Gist, Howard County schools director of school construction, toured the facility last week and spoke of design features that take advantage of natural lighting and the site's forestation.
"The area features a lot of outdoor areas, a lot of light," said Gist, over the loud churning and whizzing of construction equipment as teams worked inside and out.
"It's a sustainable design — the more windows we have, the more natural day lighting," he said. "There are studies that say natural lighting improves the learning environment, and we've somewhat followed that as a design protocol in Howard County."
However, the school's design has faced challenges, said Roey, namely that it's built on a relatively small site.
It is, in fact, about half the size of a property offered to the school system three years ago as part of a mixed-use project developer Preston Partners was constructing near the Dorsey MARC station. The developer also offered the county $4 million toward the building of the school.
Initial plans were derailed amid a proposal that a new railroad facility by the CSX Corp. and the Maryland Department of Transportation would be built near the site. The facility was ultimately built elsewhere, and the school system acquired that land to be used for a yet-to-be constructed middle school.
Meanwhile, Ducketts Lane Elementary is on half the land of the original site, nestled between several densely populated residential neighborhoods. Roey said the area is conducive to a school with a smaller enrollment, which is what school officials had in mind.
"If you look at it from an educational perspective, the smaller school is better served to do the education," said Roey. "When you get to a point where you're managing a thousand kids, it's just very hard to manage that and still deliver the educational program we're trying to deliver in Howard County."
Heidi Balter, who has served in other Howard County schools in the past, was named principal of Ducketts Lane, and this month Derek Anderson, a technology teacher at Jeffers Hill Elementary School, was added as assistant principal.