Church and state together help ease overcrowding

September 28, 1990|By Monica Norton | Monica Norton,Evening Sun Staff

Eight children sit at a table in their classroom coloring circles to form a frog design. In another corner, parent volunteers work with students to group numbers and objects. A couple of other youngsters sort through a toy box.

Another typical day in morning kindergarten at northern Baltimore County's Sparks Elementary School -- almost.

The classroom, lined with tiny chairs and tables, blackboards and colorful bulletin boards, looks like any other, except it's in the basement of Bosley United Methodist Church, about four miles from the elementary school.

Sparks has no room for the morning kindergarten pupils, for the second school year in a row. An amiable combination of church and state, this temporary arrangement is working fine, the participants say.

"That situation has worked out extremely well," Sparks Principal R. Wayne Law said. "The church people at Bosley have been extremely accommodating."

Built in 1909, before kindergarten classes even existed, Sparks Elementary was designed for the children who lived on the few surrounding farms. Many of the farms have since been replaced by baby-boomers, their single-family-detached and townhouse dwellings and, most of all, their children. Farther south rise the modern corporate towers, hotels and shopping centers of Hunt Valley.

Sparks was built for 286 students. Its current enrollment of 459 makes it 60 percent over capacity. Having more students than space is nothing unique: Thirty-nine of Baltimore County's 93 elementary schools are over capacity. Only one is in worse shape than Sparks -- Gunpowder Elementary, which is 75 percent over capacity with nine trailer classrooms.

Yet, Sparks is the only school in the county that has had to move its kindergarten classes to a nearby church. On top of that, Sparks still must set up four trailers, or relocatables, on its site to house the overflow.

The stone walls and small classrooms of the school add to its agrarian charm, but may also be a cause for its continuing problems.

After years of pleading, practically begging, to win money for the modernization and expansion of Sparks Elementary, school officials and community members alike are beginning to question whether or not it is possible to successfully renovate the 81-year-old school, or if it would be better to choose a site and build a new school.

"We have been contemplating the concept of a new school being built for several years," said Winnie Carpenter, school liaison for the Greater Sparks-Glencoe Community Council. "Then, we began to hear things about how expensive it will be to modernize the school. It will have to be brought up to code. It will have to be made accessible to the handicapped.

"We thought, 'Should we voice our opinion at this 11th hour?' We decided, 'Yes, we should.' "

The council's opinion was that a new school, centrally placed in northern Baltimore County, might better serve the community.

Also, concerns have been raised recently about such questions as how much expansion can take place on the steeply sloped hill on which the school sits and whether it will be possible to drill through the old building's thick stone walls.

Before making a decision, school officials are awaiting an architectural feasibility study due in November, which may say that the school should not be renovated, Law said.

Otherwise, work would be expected to proceed next summer. And even that seeming resolution leads to questions of where the students would be placed while construction is under way. The four relocatables already cover much of the space surrounding the school grounds, Law said. Staff members must park along the street.

"Normally, we would send kids somewhere else," Law said. "There is nowhere else. All our neighboring schools are either over or right at capacity."

Prettyboy, Seventh District and Fifth District elementary schools are the other schools that serve northern Baltimore County. The middle school in the area, Hereford, also is over capacity.

James E. Kraft, manager of the county schools' office of planning, said the school system had projected the increase in student enrollment in the northern area of the county. But the state Inter Agency Committee, which approves money for school projects, twice denied requests for money to fix Sparks.

Most recently, the school system requested money in the county's capital budget for the purchase of four school sites in northern Baltimore County. Funding was denied, Kraft said.

"We think it's short-sighted," Kraft said of the rejection.

Despite the crowding, the possible construction problems and the county's inability to accommodate the growth in the Sparks area, residents, school and county government officials appear to have an unusually amicable relationship.

Law and Carpenter credit County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen and state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, D-10th, who was defeated in the Sept. 11 primary, for coming to the school's aid.

"I think everyone's just playing it by ear right now," Carpenter said. "But, whatever the results of the study, we're willing to work within the system."

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