- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
St. Charles High School Principal Richard Conley stood outside the double doors leading to the sparkling new high school gymnasium Wednesday night, shaking the hand of every 10th-grader and parent who had showed up for sophomore orientation.
For many students, this was their first venture to the school they would be attending, a school that has been hailed by Charles County Public Schools administration and the public as one of the most innovative schools in the county, if not the state.
“Good to see you here,” Conley, a fresh-faced principal in his 30s, said as he grasped hands with a mother-daughter pair who walked in.
“Glad you could come.” He already wore a tie-dyed St. Charles spirit band around his wrist, emblazoned with “Spartans.”
“It’s actually fun to see everybody,” Conley said with a laugh.
After years of planning, construction and budget negotiations, St. Charles High will open its doors Monday, along with every other county public school. The students piling into the bleachers Wednesday were a fraction of the approximately 960 students in grades 9, 10 and 11 who will be the first to walk the halls. Next school year the school will accommodate all four high school grades.
Conley maintains that his school, despite the lavish features and high ceilings of St. Charles, is no more extraordinary than any other, even though his previous administrative post was at Henry E. Lackey High School, one of the older county schools.
“Brand-new is brand-new, but all of our facilities are in pretty good shape,” Conley said. “We make sure students have what they need to be successful at any school.”
The vision for St. Charles is science,- technology-, mathematics- and engineering-oriented, and its hallways and classrooms were built for student collaboration.
Few other public schools contain squishy couches and whiteboards in the hallways, allowing for students to leave the classroom and meet at these “collaborative stations,” under the watchful eye of a teacher through windows in the classrooms.
Each floor of St. Charles is compartmentalized by grade level, Conley said, so ninth-graders will be attending most classes on the ground floor, allowing for cross-disciplinary instruction. Freshmen from a science class could theoretically work with students who are in a math class at the same time.
Staff floats from classroom to classroom, akin to a college environment. Teachers, in keeping with the school’s collaborative spirit, do not personalize a classroom, but are designated spacious faculty offices and cubicles, where they can chat and plan with other instructors who teach the same grade.
Heather Collins, a 10th-grade math teacher, and Jason Kiessling, a special education teacher, watched the cafeteria as students filtered out at the end of orientation. The duo grew up together, graduating from Maurice J. McDonough High School a couple years apart. Collins had spent nine years teaching eighth grade at Matthew Henson Middle School, while Kiessling was hired away from the F.B. Gwynn Educational Center.
The two said they will be in talks a lot — Kiessling’s seven students, who have emotional disabilities, hopefully will “mainstream” and eventually enter Collins’ geometry course.
“There’s a little bit of anxiety of not having your own space, but the idea of being able to share with great educators supersedes that fact,” Collins said. “I can give up my desk.”
Kiessling said he was wowed by the James E. Richmond Science Center on his first visit.
“In most schools you get these cliques of people. You won’t find that as much. You’re communicating with everybody thoughout the entire grade,” he said.
The science center is the crown jewel of St. Charles’ amenities, though Conley stressed separate staff operate it. The center, named for the former superintendent whose vision for the school system was STEM-centric, contains a digital classroom, essentially a gigantic, dome-shaped theater. A globe on which holograms can be projected — Science on a Sphere — sits directly in view of the cafeteria. Only 110 of the globes exist across the nation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The hope is for every public school student, kindergarten through 12th grade, to roadtrip to the center at least once for a lesson, Conley said.
“Other than that we don’t have to get on a bus to visit, there’s no advantage to having it here,” he said. “It’s a county resource.”
The center also will be open to the public.
St. Charles’ features are seemingly endless, from the auditorium, which seats 600, to the arts labs on every floor, one of which contains a photo darkroom and another a pottery center, lined with kilns for firing students’ clay creations.
A six-lane pool, totaling 18,000 square feet, remains unfinished until March or April, Conley said.
Initial plans for St. Charles incorporated the indoor pool but were scrapped until the county commissioners in January reversed the decision. The board of education had pressed for a pool for students on the eastern side of the county, Conley said, as Lackey and North Point high schools were the only other schools to have pools.
St. Charles, a four-floor, 269,100-square-foot behemoth, was initially slated to open in 2011 after the county began talks with the architects in 2007. State rejection of a funding request delayed the opening until 2013, and finally, the county commissioners, under budget pressure, voted in March 2011 to push the deadline further back until 2014. The commissioners and school board have haggled back and forth on the school’s budget matters. In June, the school system was forced to cut the St. Charles operating budget by $200,000, to $7.5 million, equating to two teachers and three instructional assistants. The commissioners had downsized their promised amount, leaving the school system with a $5.5 million deficit overall. Construction costs for St. Charles totaled $76 million.
Most students will feed from McDonough High School, La Plata High School and Thomas Stone High School, Conley said.
Conley, who spent four years as a Spanish teacher at Westlake High School, followed by six years as a vice principal — one of those at Westlake, five at Lackey — said being at the helm of a new school is exciting. Conley started as principal of St. Charles officially in July 2013.
“To set the tone and set the vision, it’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.
Seth Johnson, one of the sophomores at the Wednesday orientation, came from McDonough. This was his family’s first school visit.
His mother, Ingra, had her reading glasses on with Seth’s schedule in hand — “We expect him to keep with his 4.0.”
“We’re excited to see what the school has to offer,” Ingra Johnson said.
Azmaree Curtis, another sophomore, pored over her new schedule with her mother Tuere Patrick.
Curtis transferred from Thomas Stone and said she plans to join the St. Charles cross-country team.
“It’s a lot more open and futuristic,” Curtis said, scowling a little at the honors Spanish III course on her schedule.
“I could have lived without it, but colleges like some consistency,” she said.
Patrick said she liked the idea of her daughter being one of the first graduating classes.
“It’s almost she’s going to go down in history,” she said. “I think it’s a good opportunity to start with a clean slate.”