A Fond Farewell

Decades of Memories Fill the Hallways at Frederick High School

By Kate McDermott | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 05.22.17 – Feature, History, People & Places

It’s just like old times. They are packing the halls and stairwells, reminiscing and laughing about chaotic class change times. In a space appropriately named the Heritage Room, they mill around tables packed with old trophies, yearbooks and other memorabilia. And they gather in the cafeteria to swap memories amid a sale of everything from old football uniforms to artists’ prints of their beloved alma mater.

For the nearly 500 former students making their final pilgrimage to Frederick High School for an alumni tour, it’s a chance to reconnect with old friends and classmates while saying their final goodbyes to a building that nearly eight decades of graduates say continues to shape how they view the world today.

In July, the walls of the old Frederick High School will begin to come down. When school starts again in September, students will take their seats in a new 270,618-square-foot building that will offer the latest technology and student-centered amenities. They will also be piloting the new LYNX (Linking Youth to New Experiences) educational model that creates highly individualized plans for student success by offering more scheduling choices and flexibility to help meet their academic and career goals.

All those changes may take some getting used to.

“It’s Our Turn”

The new Frederick High will have classrooms with actual walls and doors, a far cry from the “open concept” design that was incorporated into the existing school’s last major renovation in the late 1970s. The library will no longer have to be used as a hallway during class changes as is the case in the existing building. State-of-the-art wiring and connectivity will ensure that students and staff can take advantage of the latest Internet-based educational tools.

Since the existing Frederick High School opened in 1939, Frederick County has constructed nine other high schools. The last major renovation of FHS occurred from 1977 through 1981, when instruction moved to West Frederick Middle School while the high school was expanded to double its square footage.

Over the course of the ensuing 36 years, however, the building has begun to show its age. With its numerous additions, getting to and from classes involves navigating a maze of hallways. The failing HVAC system can mean 20-degree temperature swings in different parts of the building. Leaking ceilings have caused costly water damage to books and computers. And the open concept classrooms, which are essentially large cubicles with no windows and doors, have proven to be an educational challenge and a potential safety nightmare.

“The building is literally falling down,” says Principal Kathy Campagnoli, whose personal history with the school dates back to her student-teaching assignment in 1981.

That became the rallying cry in advocacy for a new building, with members of the Frederick High community pointing out that while other parts of the county were enjoying new or renovated schools, FHS students and staff were enduring educational inequities due to the limitations of their outdated physical plant. “It’s our turn” became the mantra conveyed in public hearings before the former Frederick County Board of County Commissioners, the Board of Education and the County Council to advocate for funding.

As the structure was crumbling around them, students say they often sensed that some of their peers in other schools perceived them differently because of their tired building. “It isn’t a nice building and we know that people often looked down on us because of it,” says Mia DiNardo, who graduated in 2014. “But that is part of what makes us more proud of it.”

Whether perceived or real, the sense of being the ugly stepchild among the county’s newer high schools has unified the FHS community. “We have pride in what we do and in our alumni,” Campagnoli says. “And we love this building even with all its dents and bruises.”

A Legacy of Diversity

Ask current and former Frederick High students about the greatest point of pride they have about their school and the answer is nearly unanimous: its diversity.

Long before it became what many lovingly refer to today as a microcosm of the United Nations, Frederick High was Frederick County’s leader in diversity. Until Linganore High School opened in 1962, Frederick High School was the only public high school in Frederick County. That meant that students from farms in Walkersville were attending school with kids from “the city.” For Carroll Kehne, who grew up in the “country” in the Yellow Springs area and entered as a freshman in 1952, it was an exciting and enlightening experience. “It was a whole new life for me,” he recalled.

In 1958, Frederick High was desegregated when African-American students from what was known at the time as the Lincoln High School began taking classes at FHS. In 1960, Patricia Hill Gaither was the first female African-American student to graduate from Frederick High School. She acknowledges her high school years weren’t easy, though. She did not fit in and had few friends.

But as she sat in the cafeteria during the alumni tour and watched students of all colors and nationalities talk and laugh, she seemed to draw a sense of comfort from knowing that today’s students don’t know the same pain. “I guess I blazed the trail for them,” she mused.

Today, more than 66 percent of the school’s students identify as minorities and there are more than 20 native languages spoken by members of the student body, including Russian, Vietnamese and Burmese.  “At Frederick High, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, rich or poor, from the country or the city,” says Sherry Angelety-Haydel, who graduated in 1980.

Laila Abdul-Rahman is the school’s current Student Government Association president. She is a member of the state champion girls’ basketball team and plans to pursue science or engineering at one of the numerous colleges to which she has been accepted, including the University of Maryland and Howard University. Laila’s mother is from Ghana and her father is Muslim. “Frederick High has such diversity and acceptance,” she says. “There is no bullying, no discrimination.”

Letting Go

Beth Strakonsky chairs the school’s social studies department and has taught in the same classroom for 32 years. In addition to her regular school days, she has spent countless additional hours in the building overseeing the Student Government Association, serving as the faculty advisor to student clubs and as the “guru” of the school’s homecoming festivities and traditions.

“I’ve probably spent more time in this physical space than any place else in my life, including my own home,” she says. “I am now teaching the children of former students. I can even create a mental map in my mind of where their parents sat.”

And imagine spending all that time in a classroom with no windows or doors. Strakonsky started at FHS in 1985, shortly after the building was renovated with the open-concept classrooms, the style “du jour” of the era. “People always ask me how can you teach without a door, but you get used to it,” she says.

That’s not to say, however, that she isn’t looking forward to her digs in the new building. “I am excited for the opportunity to have windows and doors. And my classroom will be on the top floor so I will be able to see the Ferris wheel at the fairgrounds.”

She also has no doubt that the decades of traditions that generate such loyalty in current students will continue in the new building. “Our kids have always had such pride in their school,” she says. “I’ve been told repeatedly that our Spirit Week is unparalleled among the other high schools. Our graduation march is historic. So even though we’re leaving this building, we will carry those traditions to the new building.”

She is working with the students she advises through Rho Kappa, the national Social Studies Honor Society, to create a time capsule of memorabilia that will capture the last days of the old building. Among its contents: a swim cap and goggles to represent the pool; an iPhone; and a a Time magazine with Donald Trump on the cover. But she admits that as the days in the old building start to wind down, she is thinking about the move more and more. “You have to start throwing things away,” she says, noting that after 32 years, she has a lot of saved memories in her classroom. “There are mixed emotions.”

“Packing and Purging”

Those involved in years of tirelessly advocating and planning for the new school say the effort was exhausting, but they are discovering that may have been the easy part. Now they have to deal with nearly 80 years of memorabilia, supplies and furnishings.

As the long-awaited move is finally becoming a reality, the school’s hallways and storage rooms are filled with boxes. “We’ve been inventorying, cleaning out, packing and purging,” Campagnoli says.

The efforts have been greatly supported by the FHS Alumni Association’s Heritage Committee, which has spent the better part of the past two and half years going through more than 100 years of memorabilia, dating as far back as the school’s founding in 1891, when the Male High School opened to give boys the opportunity to attend high school in Frederick.

“Needless to say, it has been quite a job, especially trying to decide what to keep and what not to keep,” says the committee’s chair Linda Floyd English, a 1961 graduate. “We’ve been inventorying and archiving all FHS memorabilia, with the objective of preserving the historical aspect of the school.”

Some of what they found will be displayed in large cases in the new school’s lobby. Others, however, will have to be relegated to the annals of history, such as the P-51 Mustang fighter plane that FHS students purchased through the sale of war bonds and stamps. A story about FHS students’ Victory Corps campaign to support the plane’s purchase appears in the 1944 yearbook.

Less-significant items were put up for sale or offered for free during alumni tours of the old building. English says they have also given duplicate yearbooks, graduation programs and other archival items to the Maryland Room in the C. Burr Artz branch of the Frederick County Public Library.

Graduates of the last 20 years or so will be pleased to know, however, that their painted “Senior Walls” that decorate the school’s cafeteria and Heritage Room will be “saved” via photography and added to the school’s archived history. “And we will continue the tradition in the new school,” Campagnoli adds, albeit with the benefit of wall panels that can be replaced with each passing year.

“We are a family”

The thought of replacing Frederick High, given its rich history and traditions, initially seemed blasphemous for many alumni. But with its significant structural and technology deficiencies, an extensive feasibility study made it painfully clear that it would simply be more cost-effective to start from scratch with a new, modern building.

Jo Anne Boyer, class of 1961, admits that she was one of those who initially wanted the school to be saved. But as she learned more about how the existing building is falling apart, she understood why a new school makes sense. “And I think people are going to like it when they see it, especially how it will face Culler Lake,” she says.

As an alumnus and a former art teacher for Frederick County Schools, Carroll Kehne strongly advocated for recreating the school’s soaring arched window and historic entrance in the new building. “People seem pretty pleased with the design now,” he says.

For Campagnoli, who has worked in six schools during her 35-year career with Frederick County Public Schools, the emotions expressed by the FHS family are not surprising, especially given the school’s long history.

“I understand why people feel the way they do. We are a family. The heart and soul of this school is the people: students, teachers, staff, parents, alumni. I have loved all of the places I’ve been, but there is such a sense of pride, of community, unity, diversity and acceptance here,” she says as her eyes filled with tears.

She pauses for a moment and adds, “There is an excitement in the air, but it’s going to be sad. This is a beginning and an end.”