Vacant office buildings in downtown Silver Spring are being considered for a new public school that would specialize in career and technical education programs.
Although still in the conceptual phases, county government leaders say the school would serve about 800 students and be a smaller version of Thomas Edison High School of Technology, considered a leader among career-readiness schools in the Washington region.
Schools Superintendent Jack Smith, County Executive Marc Elrich and Montgomery County government officials have pledged support for widening access to career and technical education, sometimes called vo-tech, programs in a county where a majority of high school graduates go on to college.
“We have to figure out how to create a pathway for kids in Montgomery County to take jobs in these tech fields — those jobs are going to get filled, but we want to create opportunities for students within the county who don’t necessarily have parents already working in these kinds of jobs helping open doors for them,” said County Council member Hans Riemer, who found a possible Silver Spring location, pitched the idea to leaders and is spearheading the effort. “Where we’re looking is a concentrated location for opportunities.”
A Silver Spring location would place a school within walking distance of technology-focused businesses, public transit and a Montgomery College campus, in contrast to Thomas Edison, which is south of Aspen Hill. The proximity to businesses would provide an “unparalleled opportunity” for county students to easily participate in internships and receive guest lectures, said Riemer, D-At-Large.
A school system spokesman said there has been no decision on what programs would be offered but said school officials toured a potential site late last year.
“I won’t comment about any specific site, but, generally, we’re trying to think outside the box for how we deliver space for students,” Turner said. “Before we do, we want to set a vision about what specifically to do with it.”
School officials cautioned that discussions about the possible location are in very early phases, and many details, such as gymnasium space, bus loading areas and outdoor recreation areas would have to be ironed out. Those amenities, common in a traditional school setting, are more difficult to accommodate in a nontraditional space, “but that doesn’t mean they’re barriers, they are factors to be considered,” said Derek Turner, the spokesman.
School Board President Shebra Evans said she believes the project could provide a learning environment for students who are not stimulated in a traditional classroom. In a school district with nearly 163,000 students, it’s important to ensure the needs of all students are being met, she said.
“Any kind of situation where we could utilize space and allow our high schoolers to engage in learning in a different way, we’re going to look at,” Evans said.
Other urban school districts, including some in New York, New Jersey, California and Fairfax County, Virginia, use the strategy and have reported success in accommodating students’ needs.
In Montgomery County, commercial space is used for the Blair G. Ewing Center, an alternative education program in Rockville that serves students who do not thrive in traditional classroom settings or have behavioral issues. The school system is also considering commercial space to serve as a holding school for Northwood High School students while the Kemp Mill area school undergoes a comprehensive renovation and expansion project, beginning in 2023.
“A school facility doesn’t have to be what it was 10 years ago, or even five years ago,” Turner said.
The school board has long discussed the possibility of “innovative” schools, which would require housing schools in nontraditional settings, such as vacant offices.
The school system in 2016 conducted a study examining school design options, including remodeling commercial buildings. The report said the school district would consider the idea when there is a “convergence of need and opportunity,” and possibilities would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The report said using vacant office space for a school facility is generally more costly than building a new school.
The report looked at a then-vacant, 150,000-square-foot office building in the area of Walter Johnson High School and estimated it would cost $18 million to $23 million to repurpose the building to serve about 900 students. The estimated cost to lease the building was about $55.3 million over 11 years or $40 million to purchase. The funding to lease or purchase commercial space would come from the school system’s operating budget, and Turner said it would take budgeting and help from the county.
“We’re not opposed to long-term leases, but with the growth we’re having we have to make sure the facility can keep up and provide adequate space long-term, as well,” Turner said, adding the school system has grown by about 2,000 students each year for a decade. “We have lots of ideas and tools we can use to address overcrowding, and commercial space is one of those tools.”
The cost of building a new school building varies, depending on what special programs are offered and what grade levels it accommodates. A new Clarksburg elementary school set to open in the fall will accommodate 741 students and cost about $32.2 million. Thomas Edison, which held its grand opening in October, seats 1,000 students and cost about $113 million to build. The school was costlier to develop because it has specialized programs such as automotive technology, construction and cosmetology.
Elrich, who taught fourth- and fifth-grade at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring for 17 years, said he hopes to provide more career-focused programs throughout the county, and is exploring how to fit the proposed project into the county’s budget without delaying modernization and expansion programs in the pipeline.
“It’s an opportunity to do something (the school system) thinks there’s demand for … and we have a difficulty providing in the county right now,” Elrich said. “I think it’s significant and a good way to provide students with the skills they might want to use to succeed out of high school, whether that be by entering the workforce or pursuing higher levels of training at Montgomery College or a university.”
Smith has focused much of his two-year tenure advocating for students who don’t want to take the “traditional” path of attending college directly out of high school.
Smith recently recommended the school board to move $7.5 million from other projects in the system’s six-year capital budget to allow an expansion at Seneca Valley High School to move forward after Elrich recommended the county government not fund the schools’ request for more construction funding. He envisions another career-focused programming hub at the Germantown high school.
In a county with increasingly less available space to build new, large-scale schools, Riemer said an innovative approach to utilizing space and reduce crowding at schools is necessary.
“If you could only create opportunities for students where you have 30 acres of land, you’re going to rule out any type of urban location or locations near successful business districts,” Riemer said. “We want our students to be where the action and opportunity is.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org