A student at Harriet R. Tubman Elementary School in Gaithersburg shows school board President Brenda Wolff her class work on Monday. Credit: Caitlynn Peetz

A new year, a new school in Gaithersburg. 

On Monday, as about 160,000 Montgomery County Public Schools students returned to classes for the first day of the 2022-23 school year, the district’s newest school was on full display. 

The three-story $34 million Harriet R. Tubman Elementary School — whose opening brings the total number of MCPS schools to 210 — opened to students for the first time Monday. As the students walked down the halls, many were wide-eyed and smiling with their friends as they looked around. 

By mid-morning, students were already hard at work in classrooms, taking part in reading lessons, decorating name tags for their lockers and writing sentences. 

One third-grader, Eilyn, dug through a box of markers to find the perfect shade of pink to color in a corner of her name tag. 

“I’m having a great day,” she said. 

A student works on an assignment on Monday at Harriet R. Tubman Elementary School in Gaithersburg.

In the lunchroom, kindergarten students ate their first lunch of the year — choosing hamburgers or grilled cheese. The school is bright, outfitted in nearly every room with windows to let in more natural light. 

“We have all of the best MCPS has to offer,” which includes staff, air filtration systems and classroom technology, Principal Cavena Griffith said in an interview. “It means so much to me to be here. It’s very special to start our school family … and be able to lead and serve along with the rest of Team Tubman to serve our families.” 

The school’s enrollment this year is about 455 students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. There are no fifth graders at the school this year — those redistricted to attend from other nearby schools will start there next year. 

The school’s capacity is about 655 students, and Tubman was built to alleviate crowding at other schools in the city. 

Tubman Elementary opens as MCPS refocuses its efforts on academics after two years of its main priority being COVID-19 mitigation, Superintendent Monifa McKnight said during a press conference. 

“As we open this new building we’re excited about it opening this year … with so much excitement ahead for these students and this community,” McKnight said. 

A student picks out crayons during class on Monday.

She was joined by several elected officials Monday, including Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, County Council President Gabe Albornoz, Council Member Craig Rice and several school board members. 

Elrich said Tubman Elementary is a reflection of the county government making the “right decision” to take on more bond debt to invest in public school facilities. 

Elrich said having updated, modern facilities positively impacts students’ ability to learn. If students attend schools with broken windows or failing infrastructure, Elrich said, they’ll be more distracted and less able to focus on their lessons. 

“If you don’t think the space matters, you’re wrong,” Elrich said. “You know when schools are taken care of when the schools reflect the aspirations we have for our students. And you know when they don’t reflect that.”

Students eat lunch on Monday at Harriet R. Tubman Elementary School in Gaithersburg.

Rice, chair of the council’s Education and Culture Committee, said naming the school after Harriet Tubman is fitting because Tubman was dedicated to ensuring people were freed from slavery and had the opportunity to make a better life for themselves. 

“Then it was up to them to make those decisions and to do the things that would make them successful,” Rice said. “It is the same thing that we’re doing here — making sure that we can navigate people through some of the troubled waters, some of the challenges that we know that they’re going to experience, and make sure they get to that place where they can make decisions on their own, about what it is that’s going to be right for them.”