Highland View Elementary’s Infamous ‘Dirt Room’ Gets A Partial Cleanup

School system is working to excavate, finish off part of the crawlspace in Silver Spring school


Published:

A photo of the so-called "dirt room" at Highland View Elementary School before the upgrades began.

Via Laura Stewart

On the lower level of Highland View Elementary School, at the end of an average-looking corridor, through an unremarkable doorframe, there is a space infamous among Montgomery County parents—at least those who have sat through a capital budget hearing or two.

Technically, Montgomery County Public Schools officials say the cave-like chamber is a crawlspace. Colloquially, it’s known as the “dirt room.”

Not “dirty.” Dirty could be an apt description, but it would be like calling paper papery.

Because until now, the view through the room’s entryway has been of a giant mound of soil and rubble sloping up from the threshold, reaching nearly to the ceiling as it approaches the rear wall of the Silver Spring school.

As one parent put it last year to the school board, the doorway “looks like it could be a portal into another dimension.”

The space runs nearly the length of one section of the building, and though Highland View is among the district’s most overcrowded elementary schools, the room has been virtually unusable.

In year after year of capital budget hearings on school system projects, parents have presented the “dirt room” as proof of the pressing need for facility renovations at Highland View and an emblem of building problems throughout the Downcounty Consortium.

Now, at long last, the dirt room is in for a change.

    

Photos taken inside the "dirt room" before the improvements began. Via Laura Stewart.

Last month, MCPS began a roughly $30,000 project to dig out part of the room and finish it off, converting a portion into a storage area, said Seth Adams, MCPS construction director.

“In some respects, we are looking forward to never speaking of the dirt room again,” said Siobhan Carroll, president of Highland View’s parent teacher association. “It became quite a symbol in a number of ways. ... I think that overall, we’re in a situation where many of our schools need facility upgrades.”

The crawlspace has existed since Highland View was built against a hill in the 1950s. Officials at the time reasoned that blasting or excavating the sloping site would be too expensive, so they simply constructed the building around the property’s rocky outcroppings— hence, the creation of the dirt room.

Parental complaints about the dirt room have focused on everything from the risk of radon contamination to a lack of insulation. Many, over the years, have objected to the waste of space.

School board member Jill Ortman-Fouse, who served as Highland View’s PTA president about 10 years ago, said the school dealt with pest problems because bugs would crawl out of the dirt and into the building. Four principals in a row and countless parents have advocated for a solution, she added.

“I am sure I do not need to remind the board of the dirt room at Highland View which sits at the end of a hallway of Kindergarten and First Grade classrooms,” parent Ashley Franzel said in written testimony submitted to the board in 2016. “This space holds a large boulder, a good amount of dirt, and has a door as if it could be used. ... Humidity and mold are also issues that need to be addressed.”

Adams said finishing part of the “dirt room” probably won’t do much to improve the air inside the building, aside from creating an additional buffer between the rocky ground and the interior.

Still, the project does make use of some previously wasted space. Adams said excavating the entire room would be too costly, but workers have managed to dig out about 300 square feet of it. They’re also pouring a solid floor inside the cleared space and erecting some block walls to separate it from the looming dirt mound.

While the newly finished area is not suitable as an additional classroom, it will give the school some additional storage, he said. Carroll said parents are appreciative.

“Three hundred square feet is not a lot, but that’s really a space that can help an elementary school that serves 400,” Carroll said, adding that the school has six portable classrooms.

While Highland View's principal, Galit Zolkower, referred all questions about the project to Adams, she has been active on social media with updates on the work.

The room should be finished within the next couple of weeks, Adams said.

Ortman-Fouse said she’s glad—not only that the dirt room is getting attention—but that there’s progress on relieving crammed classrooms throughout the Downcounty Consortium.

“I know people in this area look at buildings like E. Brooke Lee and Eastern Middle School and Northwood High School and our very overcrowded facilities and think that this area has been left behind,” she said.

MCPS several years ago conducted a capacity study of elementary schools in the DCC and is now moving forward with building additions in the cluster, a school system spokesman said.

The school system is also looking at a new method for ranking its renovation and expansion projects, Ortman-Fouse noted.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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