A new elementary school is set to open this month in my end of Annapolis. It’s a yellow brick road to better education, I suppose.

This $39 million edifice replaces old Hillsmere Elementary, a red-brick monument to ideas about education that are fading away in Maryland. When it opened in 1967, students stayed put in their seats, facing straight ahead to chalkboards and teachers’ desks. It was a place where paddles hung on principals’ walls, an unspoken threat of painful discipline for acting out or being different.

It changed over the next 50 years. Hillsmere opened right after Maryland public schools were officially desegregated, although in practice that has never been the whole story. It opened during Vietnam and just before the Nixon era.

The old Hillsmere Elementary School on Arundel on the Bay Road in Annapolis, before it was knocked down. (Anne Arundel County Public Schools)

It was there when 12 students, a teacher and two teenage shooters died at Columbine in 1999, changing what it means to go to school in America. It was there when standardized tests were the solution, and when they were the problem. It was there during COVID, and when students came back.

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Fifty-six years of students, teachers, memories and unending ideas about what works in education crossed its polished terrazzo floors until the wrecking crews came calling this summer.

And so, I’ve watched with a sense of loss as this worn educational space dissolved into a dusty pile of brick-and-concrete rubble, bent-steel framing and broken rebar.

“This is the first school that I ever worked in that is being taken down and replaced by a new building,” said Ray Bibeault, a former Hillsmere Elementary principal who retired in 2018 as a regional superintendent for Anne Arundel County schools. “I was hoping to get one more walk-through.”

I didn’t go to Hillsmere. I spent some of my elementary years at Ocean City Elementary, a building cast from the same mold as Hillsmere but located next to a cucumber field. So when my wife and I enrolled our daughter and later our son in our neighborhood school in the early 2000s, it felt familiar.

Hillsmere is the oldest of three buildings being replaced by county schools this month, but not by much. Quarterfield Elementary in Severn opened in 1968, and Rippling Woods followed in Glen Burnie six years after that.

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All of them were filled with memories like mine.

Doing the Chicken Dance at seven years’ worth of spring and fall fundraisers. Sitting on folding chairs through endless plays and concerts, including the ones where my daughter faked playing the viola.

Showing up for my son’s second grade career day, only to be upstaged by a firefighter in turnout coat and helmet sporting an ax and breathing gear. I showed my son’s class how to make newspaper hats.

There was the day that my son dropped a bass drum on his head, or the afternoon my daughter rode her sparkle-pink Heelys — shoes with retractable wheels — right under a car in the parking lot. It was my old Jetta and parked, but scary nonetheless.

There were the days my wife left work to have lunch with one or both of our kids, bringing home stories about the “cowgirls” who sat together in the “cafegymtorium” and said “moo.”

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There was former principal Bibeault, remembered fondly by them for “stealing” french fries from students’ trays during lunch 20 years ago.

“I talked with the kids and played with them a little bit,” Bibeault recalled. “I’d make them look one way and take a French fry. Today, they’d probably hang you up.”

When a school building comes down, even if some bits are saved, lots of things get lost. Memorials to students claimed by accident or illness, student artwork trying to put youthful feelings about the Sept. 11 terror attacks into glass, or a list of students who grew up just enough to die in wars.

Anne Arundel County keeps its schools longer than most systems in Maryland, where the average age before replacement is 31 years. When they come down here, it feels like family history is being demolished.

“The buildings are more than buildings,” said Bob Mosier, county schools spokesperson. “They’re more than cinder blocks and bricks, and lighting fixtures and water fountains and chalkboard and walls. Especially in this county, where you have generations of families that go to the same building.”

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There’s pressure on Anne Arundel to make new schools cheaper and replace them after 30 years instead of half a century or more. Cheaper buildings mean more maintenance costs, and with billions in backlog already, that’s been enough to keep it the way it is. Or maybe it’s the idea that institutions should last more than a single generation.

The oldest school in the county, Annapolis Elementary School, opened as a high school in 1896. It was converted into an elementary school when its replacement opened in 1932. That was the year Glen Burnie High opened, too, and it’s still going.

Eventually, though, even buildings that last 50 or 100 years reach the end. The physical structure becomes too much to maintain, renovate and expand, or the educational space becomes too dated to work anymore.

“Yes, you can take a chalkboard down and put a smartboard up,” Mosier said. “But at some point, all that upgrading becomes as expensive as a new school.”

Then out come the mechanical claws, crushers and dump trucks to haul away the history.

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A few buildings find a second life. When the second Annapolis High School was replaced in 1979 by the third built out on Riva Road, it became Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. Classrooms are now used for Irish dance and sculpture, and the auditorium is home to symphonies, operas and rock concerts.

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When an old school building is torn down, some people won’t care. It’s just a building, after all. Others are flooded with nostalgia.

Favorite teachers, not-so-favorite teachers. First friends. First boyfriends.

My old elementary school came down in 1985. When I heard about it, I suddenly had a craving for fudge made from government-surplus peanut butter and set out slabs on individual paper plates. When the new Severna Park High opened in 2017, graduates organized one final walk-through of the one built in 1959.

“It brings all of it back,” Mosier said.

If you drive by Quarterfield, Rippling Woods or Hillsmere elementary schools, you might doubt that they’ll open in time for the start of classes. The old building is gone at Hillsmere, but demolition has yet to take much of a bite out of the other two. All three campuses will eventually feature playing fields on the site of the original schools, although that won’t happen for a few more months.

“It always seems like that,” Mosier said. “That’s not uncommon at all for it to look less far along than it really is. We don’t anticipate any problems.”

A ribbon-cutting is set for each of the schools, an opportunity for students and families to get a first look.

They’ll see yellow brick walls, and wide windows that offer more natural light. They’ll find greater accessibility for people using wheelchairs. They’ll find classrooms wired for sound so every student hears what the teacher is saying.

No more open space, a failed educational experiment present at Rippling Woods. No more cafegymtoriums.

“The cafeteria and gymnasium are separate spaces now,” Mosier said. “There is a foldable wall that you can pull back and have a big space for school concerts and events.”

What happens when the new Hillsmere, Quarterfield and Rippling Woods elementary schools open?

Now there’s room for new memories.


Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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