Harford County Board of Education approves education specifications for the combination of Harford Academy and elementary school

The Harford County Board of Education approved project requirements Monday for a new building that will help facilitate the merger of the Harford Academy alternative school with an elementary school and a model school at a new site.

Harford Academy, which opened in 1971, is the only county public school serving students age 3 to 21 with profound developmental needs.The school’s building, with an enrollment of 142 students, hasn’t been renovated since 1981, and the approved specifications are designed to address the needs of various stakeholders when a new school is built.

“Our education specification is a process in our planning phase where we look at the program requirements for our facility and we meet with internal and external stakeholders,” Cornell Brown, assistant supervisor for operations, said in a presentation at the June 12 board meeting. “Education specifications are used to assist the design team.”

In 2009, an initial scope of the present building found it needed to be replaced because of issues with its condition, safety, and educational program efficiency. The study also concluded that instructional needs, as well as support service requirements of the students attending the school, have changed since the construction of the original building.

Due to the nature of the students attending the school, modernizing the facility through a phased occupied renovation was not considered as an option, according to a document presented by Harford County Public Schools.

The academy shares an 80.33-acre site with Harford Technical High School and Prospect Mill Elementary School. While the site is adequate for the current facilities, it is limited to potential location and size to build a new facility. The initial study found the present site feasible for a replacement building, but the project was deferred due to fiscal constraints, the document said.

In February, 2022, the Board of Education approved a Balancing Enrollment plan for Harford County Public Schools that included adding an elementary school to the project to increase elementary capacity within the county’s growth envelope and help meet the needs related to expansion of pre-kindergarten and special education programs.

In order to compete during the nationwide teacher’s shortage, a model school was also added to the project to provide a teaching path to high school and college students with an interest in education and existing staff access to learning opportunities with hands-on experience within a classroom, according to the plan.

So far, a new site for the school has not been identified. Regulations for the Administration of the Public-School Construction Program requires school projects to be within a Priority Funding Area, which state and local governments identify as land favored for investment to support further growth.

“With this project, we’ve been working on a site plan approval with the state,” said Brown at the June 12 meeting. “The Shucks Road property [initially considered for a new building] is outside of the state’s property funding area. We’ve been working with our local government to find other sites that would be within a developmental envelope.”

County Executive Bob Cassilly funded the planning phase for the project in the county budget. As soon as a site is identified, Harford County Public Schools can move forward to the next phase, according to Valentino.

The education specification committee has 15 members including elementary principals, educators, technology specialists, and members from the Maryland Department of Education. The committee started meeting in January, and has had over 40 meetings so far.

“Each meeting means pulling in staff and content area leaders to really discuss what those educational needs are for the spaces,” Valentino said at the June 12 meeting.

A challenge Harford County Public Schools faced was trying to put multiple programs into one building including the public day school, elementary school, and model school. Parents and staff at Harford Academy shared their concerns about keeping the school’s dignity and upholding the schools safety and security.

“At the same time, we didn’t want to build a building that is broken up into multiple areas,” said Valentino at the June 12 meeting. “We really want people to feel like this is their community school.”

The public day school is a program for students from ages three to 21 years old with educational and medical needs that cannot be adequately served in a typical school setting.

“The students don’t actually work through the grades like a typical grade transition, so we have to be flexible with how that looks,” Valentino said.

The day school will include three classroom clusters for elementary, middle, and high school, 24 general classrooms, two music classrooms, two art classrooms, four physical education spaces including an elementary gym, secondary gym, fitness room, and movement room, occupational therapy and physical therapy, speech therapy spaces, a media center, independent living spaces including a life skills classroom, home economics and cooking classrooms, and a career vocational room, and specialty classrooms including a horticulture area with a greenhouse and a technical education lab, according to the specification summary.

The elementary school will serve students in grades pre-kindergarten through five.

The school will have a regional early intervention program, reading and language arts, writing, math, science, social sciences, physical education, and the fine arts.

The specification summary includes classroom clusters by grade, two full day pre-K classrooms, two early intervention classrooms and support spaces, 24 classrooms for grades kindergarten through five, two music classrooms, an art classroom, a large gymnasium with a dividing curtain, an occupational therapy room, speech therapy rooms, pullout and small group spaces, and teacher workrooms.

The model school is for high school and college students who want to become teachers. The school gives students an opportunity to train in a live classroom environment.

“The model school is really a new and growing program,” said Valentino. “It’s actually an awesome opportunity.”

The model school will be a suite including a large classroom with a folding dividing wall, a workroom, a Harford County Public Schools office space, a higher education partner office space, storage, eight elementary school observation rooms, and three public day school observation rooms, the specification summary said.

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The dignity and safety and security of Harford Academy remained at the forefront for parents, staff, and stakeholders. With those concerns in mind, Harford County Public Schools wants the combination of schools to be a community.

The school will have a single main office with a main entrance. The entrance will be like most Harford County Public Schools with a welcome point where all visitors are greeted by school staff, signed in, and directed to the appropriate location.

In addition to the single main office and main entrance, there will be flexible central community spaces, way-finding, a single main kitchen with two cafeterias, individual media centers connected to bring students together, a horticulture area, flexible observation spaces and small group spaces. A shared gym will offer after-hours community use, the specification summary said.

“Students can be separated, but on days when they want to be together, they can,” Valentino said. “That can be a decision made on a daily basis depending on the needs of the students and the staff of the building.”

Harford County Public Schools will submit the specification to the state for review.

The next board meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. on July 17.