Cedarbrook tries to maintain normalcy amid relocation

Cedarbrook Middle School in Cheltenham is being emptied of students and staff due to mold and other problems. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Cedarbrook Middle School in Cheltenham is being emptied of students and staff due to mold and other problems. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 05, 2014

CHELTENHAM When planning an elaborate, 86-person middle school musical, distraction can be a director's worst nightmare. But for the cast of Shrek at Cedarbrook Middle School, the play itself has been the distraction.

"Doing something you love, it can be a great distraction to what's going on in your life," said their teacher and director, Robin Rosenberg.

Students and staff this year have faced a roller coaster of uncertainty. Cedarbrook - the building - is racked by mold and falling apart at the seams. Beginning next week, the 750 students, faculty, and staff will be relocated to three locations.

The plan has been controversial and emotional, but administrators say they have no choice and no time to spare.

"We had to close the gym last Friday because we had so much water coming through the roof," principal Iris Parker told parents at a meeting Wednesday. "Every day we have a new adventure."

The district has found some silver linings in all the chaos. For example, one site will take part in a Google computer pilot program.

And the lease of the main relocation site, on Ivy Hill Road in Springfield Township, is a win for the district and the owners.

The building, formerly a Pathmark grocery, was rebuilt in 2005 as a private elementary school. Unlike many other sites the Cheltenham School District considered, it has all the necessary school accommodations.

The Seventh-day Adventist Conference bought the building in December for $3.3 million. Two months later, it signed a lease with the school district that will bring in about half of the purchase price over the next two to three years.

Despite glimmers of hope, the stress of moving is beginning to take a toll on teachers and parents.

"I've been hearing from my kids how the teachers are a little bit more cranky, a little more on edge, and not as fun," said Lisa Payne Chirico, who has triplets at Cedarbrook. "They're on the front line, having to keep the kids' spirits up and say, 'We're going to make it through this.' Of course they're going to be frustrated."

The first group of eighth graders will leave Cedarbrook on March 10, settling into a wing of Cheltenham High School.

The next group may have a rougher time. Their move to St. Joseph Parish in Elkins Park is scheduled for March 20, a Thursday following three straight days of state exams, and on opening night of the musical.

The final and largest group plans to move March 31. State exams will still be in full swing.

Kim Aspen-Leider said she is not too worried about her son, an eighth grader who is being relocated to the high school. "He's mature. He's fine. We'll just get the transition out of the way now."

But for her sixth-grade daughter, Aspen-Leider is exploring private schools.

"It's a direct result of this move," Aspen-Leider said. "I couldn't do another year of this. It's a chaotic environment."

The district is rushing to reroute buses, hire extra staff, and clean every book, binder, and backpack to avoid contaminating the new sites. So far, the move is slated to cost more than $2.3 million.

In the coming months, the school board will turn its attention to designing a new building, estimated at $55 million, and possibly reopening a discussion about grade alignment.

Cheltenham is one of the few districts in the country that breaks the primary grades up three times, with separate campuses for kindergarten to fourth grade, fifth and sixth grades, and seventh and eighth grades.

Since it will take at least five years for a new middle school to be built, current elementary school students will end up attending at least four campuses over the course of six years.

A demographic study was already underway. Now, Superintendent Natalie Thomas said, the report will kick off an "earnest conversation about grade-level configuration . . . and lead us to our long-term plan for facilities."

For the drama students, such concerns take a backseat to the stage mantra: The show must go on.

"The only difference this year is that we're packing and moving in the middle of it," said Rosenberg.


jparks@philly.com

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks

www.inquirer.com/MontcoMemo

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