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Principal at Hallie Wells Middle School Hopes to Build a Community Within Clarksburg

As Dr. Barbara Woodward began our quick tour of the new Hallie Wells Middle School in Clarksburg, the new principal of the new school stops outside the door of the non-quite finished cafeteria and points to the new tables waiting to be unpacked and arranged.

“You can see those red circular tables,” says as she points through the window. “While not all the tables are circular, I think middle school kids and people, in general, prefer to be at round tables rather than long rectangular tables. The round tables are more conducive to building community which is a big part of what we are trying to do here. While we are putting up a school, we are really building a community. Clarksburg is a great community, and we wanted to make sure that the school was a cornerstone in that community.”

Woodward and her staff, as well as the construction crews, are hard at working getting everything completed, doing the final work for the new school; unpacking furniture, stocking store rooms, sealing floors — the gym floor still needs to be painted and sealed.

Everybody gets a punch-list of things that need to get done every morning. The construction crew from Hess Construction were working on re-keying every lock on every door so that they could give Principal Woodward keys to her building. Meanwhile, crews were outside working on landscaping and watering the newly sodded fields, which Woodward said would be handled with extreme care until sometime in November.

“Our fields will be done. However, we have scheduled our instructional program to not use the exterior fields until late fall,” said Woodward. “The reason is very specific. Sod needs a while to set. The PE department is going to use the gym, but keep students off the field to give the grass a chance to build a strong base. We also hope the community will stay off those fields and give the grass a chance to grow strong.”

When the new school opens for students on August 29, it will be the only newly constructed school opening in the county. The school cost $52.8 million to build based on the Board of Education’s FY17 Approved Capital Improvement Plan.

The building was designed by the Calverton-based architectural firm of Grimm and Parker, who had previously designed the Music Center at Strathmore, as well as Lakelands Park Middle School in Gaithersburg, and the Wilson Wims Elementary School in Clarksburg. Wims will be one of the feeder schools for the new Hallie Wells Middle School.

“This school is bright and open,” said Woodward as she continued the tour of her new school. “There is natural light everywhere including the gym and all the classrooms. The only exception are interior rooms for like computer labs, but everything else has natural light and very tall windows. It really brings your eye up.” Even the stairways are filled with natural light which streams in through windows which run from the bottom up to the roof. The media center features gigantic floor to ceiling windows which allows light to flow through the room.

When Hallie Mills Middle School opens, it will be the first new construction middle school in Montgomery County in 11 years. The last was Lakelands Park Middle School in Gaithersburg which opened in 2005.

Building a Mustang Community

One of the cool things about opening a new school is the process of creating the community, said Woodward. “Once we got the name Hallie Wells Middle School and everyone had learned about who Hallie Wells was we started thinking about our mascot,” said Woodward.

The school’s namesake, Hallie Wells was, as Woodward calls her, “An extraordinary ordinary woman,” became a local hero in Clarksburg after she donated 290 acres of farmland to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1981 with the intent that the land be used “as open space, for parkland, and/or recreation” in an act of unselfish generosity and community heroism. Part of that gift was a stipulation that the historic 1915 Herschell-Spillman carousel, once operating at the Smithsonian and currently at Wheaton Regional Park, have its final location in Clarksburg at Ovid Hazen Wells Recreational Park. The carousel is officially named the Ovid Hazen Wells Carousel.

“As we were doing our research on Hallie Wells, we learned about the carousel,” said Woodward. The carousel has 33 jumping horses on it, along with three zebras and two chariots. The plan was to have the community select the mascot and the colors. Woodward and administrators from Rocky Hill Middle School, Wims Elementary, and Cedar Grove Elementary School sent surveys to students and parents asking them to select their favorite for the choice of mascot.

Woodward and the team included the option of a Mustang in the survey because they thought it would be a great way to tie Hallie Wells back to the carousel. “We thought it would be a great way to teach kids about Hallie Wells in a deeper way, but maybe some advocacy as well, to say ‘let’s bring those Mustangs home,’ because those Mustangs are still over in Wheaton.” The original deed for the sale of the 290 acres states that the carousel and the Mustangs should be moved to Clarksburg when there are "sufficient numbers of park users."

“The kids all voted, and the kids picked the mascot and the school colors,” said Woodward. The school colors are red and black.

Unique School for a Unique Community

While the main design for the building was essentially the same plan for the last four new middle schools that have opened, HWMS has some unique quirks.

“This is the fourth iteration of this building designed by Grimm and Parker,” said Woodward. “The first was Takoma Park Middle School, followed by Lakeslands Park Middle School, Rocky Hill Middle School, and this building. They were all the same basic blueprints with small variations.”

“Middle schools have grade-level teaching teams. The architect decided to combine the team space for each grade to have it be much more flexible,” said Woodward. She explained that each grade level would be housed on a separate floor of the three-story building.

The team space is almost a suite of rooms, including a break room, a glass-enclosed conference room, and a lounge area with couches for meetings with families or small group teacher meetings.

For the first year, Hallie Wells Middle School will only host sixth and seventh graders. The incoming seventh graders will occupy the first floor for two years. Once all three grades are at the school, the eighth grade will be on the first floor, the six grade will occupy the second floor, and the seventh grade will be on the third floor. Each floor is nearly identical, but the paint scheme delineates each floor. The first floor is orange; second floor is green, and the third floor is blue.

There is also a special classroom with collaboration tables. The room will have six tables that six students can stand at and all work on their individual Chrome Books while working off of the same large screen monitor at the head of the table, while the teacher will be working on his or her Chrome Book on the Promethean board at the head of the classroom.

“This is what you see when you see people working at a Starbucks or a major corporation. This sort of collaboration. We wanted to recreate what might take place outside of the school here inside the school,” said Woodward. “While we will have stools, I don’t envision students sitting and working; I see them standing around the table and collaborating and working as a group, a community.”

Indeed that idea of students being about to stand up in class appealed to Woodward so much that she has ordered three classrooms of standup desks where students will have the option to stand for the 40-minute class or sit on a stool. Hallie Wells Middle School will be the only middle school in Montgomery County with stand up desks.

“While kids will have the option to sit,” said Woodward. “I think kids are going to be happy to sit or be half-on and half-off the stool. The school is not really built for the middle school kid to sit passively in a classroom for 40 minutes on end. Anybody who has taught middle school kids knows that you have to have those sort of movement breaks in there.”

Another unique design feature of the building, as opposed to the three prior versions of this school, is that the classrooms are a little bigger, explained Woodward. “The other schools like Rocky Hill Middle School have five classrooms to a hallway; we have four, but they are bigger. It also allowed for extra space, an extra breakout room.”

The room is roughly eight feet by ten feet located at the corner of a hallway with two glass enclosed walls. “It is just a neat room. It speaks again to trying to build community, creating spots for the students and staff to feel excited about being here,” said Woodward. The room could be used for para-educators working with students, or small club meetings, or a make-up test room, or student government meetings. The space will have small flexible couch like chairs, a marker-board table that students or teachers can write on and easily erase. There is one breakout room on each floor. “We are trying to think of this as a creative space and we are hoping to be creative in the ways we are using this space,” she said.

When asked why she took on the challenge of opening the first new MCPS middle school in over a decade Woodward, who is a native of Wisconsin says she feels home in the Clarksburg area. “I used to work at John Baker Middle School in Damascus. I thought it would be neat to come and work in an area that felt a little bit like home. I am from the Mid-West originally. It seemed like a fun challenge. It has been really fun and exciting.”

While there is still much to be done in the days and few weeks leading up to opening day on August 29, Woodward isn’t worried. The stress of opening a new school and starting a new community isn’t keeping her awake at night.

“I think it is going to be a pretty powerful moment when that first bus pulls up, and the first kids