FROSTBURG – When Martin Crump opens the door to the basement in Westmar Middle School, the room is barely lit and a loud humming sound almost drowns out what he says next:
“This is Big Bertha.”
Crump isn’t talking about a basement-dwelling monster. He is fondly referring to the massive coal-burning furnace that has heated the school since its construction in 1957.
Crump, who has been principal of the Westernport middle school for four years, speaks of the furnace affectionately, as if this artifact was a loyal pet.
But he said the school’s plumbing and heating systems have been repaired so many times that he can’t help but look forward to the modern age conveniences of the school’s planned new home.
Allegany County is building its first new high school in 50 years and as a part of this plan, Westmar Middle is closing and its ancient furnace will be shut off. Beall High School in Frostburg is also closing and the new high school is being built in front of the current Beall campus.
The new Mountain Ridge High School will combine the student populations of Beall and Westmar high schools. Westmar Middle will inherent the old Westmar High building because the 53-year-old school was significantly renovated in 1996.
If construction continues as scheduled, the new high school will open in the fall of 2007. The three schools are no more than 20 miles apart.
School consolidation is nothing new for this small community of around 11,000 and for the county as a whole. At one time, the county had eight high schools. After Mountain Ridge opens, the count will shrink to three, said Vincent Montana, supervisor of maintenance and school construction for Allegany.
The county has been consolidating for the last 20 years, Montana added. Student enrollment tumbled from 13,470 in 1980 to 9,846 in 2004.
Beall and Westmar High schools are about 50 percent full. Westmar Middle is using 44 percent of the building’s capacity.
“This is a county that up through the 60s and 70s was a smokestack county with a big population and good jobs,” Crump explained.
“When [the large employers] closed, there started to be a population shift. The economic decline has been a strain on the [school] system.”
School consolidation is a controversial solution in other jurisdictions. Baltimore, for example, plans to close six schools starting next fall because of declining enrollment and old facilities.
Crump said consolidation is “an emotional issue” for any community.
Neighborhoods lose the school just around the corner. Teachers worry about what school they will teach in after the consolidation. Students have to buy new school shirts and cheer on teams with students who used to go to rival schools.
“Schools are the center of the community,” Crump said.
Montana said “there is always some resistance” to school consolidation.
But this time, the area is getting a brand new facility. School officials and teachers say the promise of a modern school has made rallying community support easier this time around.
There are certain things that will not be missed about Westmar Middle. The science labs in some classes are really just tables, Crump said.
The five levels of the building are not handicap accessible. Last year, the county provided a wheel chair that climbs steps without human assistance, Crump said, but the steep ramp and endless stairs are still difficult.
Orange and black electrical cords run across hall ceilings and the school still uses a fuse panel to control the electrical system. Crump says the school does not have any electrical breakers. But teachers use the fuses in lessons as if they were part of a museum display.
The technology education teacher shows classes the fuses to demonstrate “what was state of the art in the 1950s,” Crump said with a laugh.
Beall High School could also be considered a functioning history lesson. Like Westmar Middle, Beall is heated by a coal-powered furnace. Each school, however, has two backup gas-powered generators installed in the 1990s. Most of the rooms in Beall are warmed by a radiators built in 1941.
Outside of the gymnasium, wooden panels line the lobby. There are touches of Art Deco in the glass panels around the doorway of the front lobby.
For Montana, these signs of age are beautiful.
But Beall ultimately is “educationally obsolete,” he said. Classrooms in the new school will have the latest technology and will have a larger and more efficient instructional space.
For instance, the science classrooms will no longer be awkwardly divided down the middle by a massive lab station and there will be a computer for every three students, Montana said.
New programs are also planned for Mountain Ridge. The journalism class will have a television station in the media center for school broadcasts and the drama department will have a place to build sets.
Beall Principal Gregory Smith said by combining the two high school populations – Beall has around 600 students and Westmar High has around 400 – Mountain Ridge can offer more classes, such as specialized Advanced Placement courses.
In addition to getting a new building and new courses, students will have a whole new identity at Mountain Ridge.
A committee was formed to come up with a name and after a student vote at both schools, members determined the new class will be the Raiders, decked out in black, gold, red and white.
Reactions among students and teachers to the proposed merger are mixed. Many are excited about the better classrooms and additional courses, while others worry about working with new students and teachers.
Ryan Patterson, a Beall social studies teacher and assistant football coach, said the new school will be a “breath of fresh air” for the county.
Patterson noted that the athletic departments at both schools have “bridges” that should make the transition easy and fair for student athletes. For instance, Patterson said he played football when he was a student at Frostburg State University with the man who is now Westmar’s head football coach.
Others are more ambivalent. James Evans, an earth sciences teacher who has worked at Westmar High for 11 years, worries that Westmar students will not have a fair shot for a spot on sports teams because they will have come from the smaller of the two schools.
But he says he is also excited about the new school because of “all of benefits that it creates.”
Evans was part of the first graduating class of Westmar High School in 1990. The current Westmar is the product of a merger of Bruce and Valley high schools. He said the current plan was not greeted with the same animosity.
Even so, some students are upset about the decision.
Lacey Hutchenson, the freshmen class president of Westmar, said she is not “too excited” about the change and the need to “make all new friends again and learn the halls again.”
Likewise, fellow ninth grader Brad Ritchie doesn’t like the plan because the two schools to be merged are sports rivals.
“It will make it hard in the classroom and the sports fields,” he said.
But Kaitlin Greig, a Beall senior, said her fellow classmates “are excited” for the move and she doesn’t expect for there to be friction between the two student bodies.
“They just happen to be the homecoming school we play,” she said.
Smith, a Beall alumnus, said when the school closes, “it will be a sad day but the school has reached the end of its lifespan.”
But with the addition of 400 students from Westmar, “we are going to become a better school,” he added. “That’s the trade off.”