Construction on a new gym at Silver Spring International Middle School (SSIMS) won’t address critical safety hazards at the building, students and other community members have testified at recent public meetings.
Some observers are calling for a “complete overhaul” of the nearly 90-year-old school, which suffers from overcrowding, water damage, air quality problems, mold, asbestos, unfinished renovations and tricky modes of egress. Community members say half measures are a continuation of historical policies that disadvantaged schools on the east side of the county.
Montgomery County Public Schools won’t release results of a safety audit conducted in January but announced in a community letter that the school has established a new safety monitoring plan and a safety committee.
Paul Guinnessy and his family have lived a block away from SSIMS for the past 16 years. His seventh-grade child went to Sligo Creek Elementary and currently attends SSIMS. He said in an interview that he recognizes getting a new building would be unrealistic given tight resources, but he said the “piecemeal refurbishment” planned for the summer won’t fix the “clear issues” with the building structure.
“At a minimum, this requires a massive overhaul and rethinking in how the building is structured,” he told MoCo360. “This is a unique school, and it requires unique resources to address it.”
Seventh grader Sylvia Gitter submitted video testimony to the school board describing how the SSIMS building “feels suffocated” and expressing frustration at a perceived lack of answers from the school district.
“Worrying about ceiling tiles falling on your head or getting lung cancer from asbestos should not be the worry of a 13-year-old like me — yet it is,” she testified.
Gitter appeared in the video sitting in front of a gaping hole in a wall of the SSIMS building. School board member Rebecca Smondrowski reacted to her testimony by vocalizing a desire to see the building completely overhauled. She said in her 10 years on the board, “SSIMS keeps coming up,” and added, “I want to make sure we’re spending our money in the best possible way.”
While MCPS facilities management director Seth Adams acknowledged that the building “does degrade faster than others” and needs attention, he pushed back on claims that the conditions have an impact on the students.
“A facility does not impact the day-to-day programs,” he told the board.
He said SSIMS does not rank as high as other schools currently scheduled for major capital projects but said the school district is “committed to making sure all our spaces are adequate.”
Home to approximately 1,250 students, SSIMS is the third largest middle school in the county and, according to students and parents, architecturally unique compared to other schools. The building was originally constructed in 1934 as Montgomery Blair High School, but in 1999 it underwent renovations that split the campus in half to house SSIMS and Sligo Creek Elementary.
The construction project set to begin at SSIMS this summer has been in the works since fiscal year 2019. Originally, it would have moved Sligo Creek ES to a new facility and given the full building to SSIMS, but renovations have been delayed and scaled back due to funding shortages over the years.
As it stands, the project will convert an old SSIMS auditorium into a gymnasium, locker rooms and science classrooms. MCPS spokesperson Jessica Baxter said the project will also create “additional stairwells that will improve the overall circulation throughout the building.”
Students, teachers and parents have continued to vocalize concerns about the accessibility of the building and the safety of its conditions. Overcrowding and hallway circulation has been a particularly strong concern, with SSIMS student Fabienne Kelsey recently testifying to the school board that some of the doorways are so narrow, students are late to class because so many people have to squeeze through them.
Chris Richardson and his family live near SSIMS, where his 17-year-old graduated and his 13-year-old currently attends. A self-described architectural buff, Richardson said he has “a lot of pride” in the historic school building and would be sad to see it abandoned, but added that the school needs “serious attention” to make it a safe learning environment for students.
“The conditions of the school are so demoralizing, there’s no doubt in my mind that it […] results in lots of small daily trauma,” he said in an interview. “The building just looks so shambling, is the best way to put it.”
Richardson pointed out that original 1930s blueprints and budgets for the SSIMS building—then Blair High—are nearly identical to those of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High. At the time, B-CC was the only other high school in the county to receive federal funding from the Work Projects Administration (WPA) as part of the Second New Deal, according to a historic bulletin from the Bureau of Public Works.
“What you realize is the two buildings started out the same, but SSIMS has lagged behind schools like B-CC in terms of upkeep and investment for years,” he said. “I go to the B-CC book fest every year—it’s a real joy to be in that building. There’s a totally different spirit emanating from SSIMS. It’s a stark illustration of how your experience living in Montgomery County differs vastly depending on your Zip code.”
Experts, officials and county residents have long been raising concerns about historic underinvestment in lower-income down-county areas such as Silver Spring compared to more affluent up-county neighborhoods.
A 2019 assessment of SSIMS’ compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act identified 338 barriers to accessibility on campus. In late January, safety concerns related to overcrowding and accessibility, air quality, water damage, asbestos and other health hazards prompted MCPS to conduct a safety audit of the building.
MCPS has declined to publish findings of the audit, saying that the sensitive information would jeopardize the safety of students and staff. However, a community letter sent by MCPS after the audit outlined several immediate next steps being taken to address concerns, including the establishment of a school monitoring plan and safety committee made up of students, staff and parents. The team is expected to meet monthly to discuss internal safety concerns and possible action plans.
Principal Karen Bryant shared with parents in a recent school newsletter that the school monitoring plan created after the audit is now being introduced as a model for schools across the district.
“Every school in MCPS will now create and implement a similar school safety plan as part of MCPS’ effort for coordinated protocol in schools,” she wrote.
In a PTSA meeting on Tuesday night, Bryant said she’s received several applications from parents looking to join the safety committee and has reached out to the MCPS central office for guidance on constructing the team.
Construction is projected to be finished by August 2025, according to Baxter.
Sami Saeed, a Richard Montgomery High School junior and finalist for student member of the school board, attended the March 7 board meeting and said he shares SSIMS students’ concerns about the conditions of their building. He said he believes the school district needs to address these concerns much quicker than the projected 2025 construction completion date.
“I think 2025 is way too far,” he said. “You can’t learn in a building that’s falling apart.”