Howard High School freshman Eric Myers was a little frustrated his first week of school.
"You can't get anywhere," he said as he sat in the lunchroom, about to bite into his sandwich. "It's always really crowded. You can't move. You get jostled around, and then you get there late."
Eric, 14, attends the county's biggest and most crowded high school, a place with six sprawling portable classrooms, packed stairwells and bottlenecks in the hallways. The school has an estimated enrollment of nearly 1,500 students, about 300 students above capacity.
That's typical of conditions this year at half the eight high schools in the county, where record population growth has caused crowding at virtually every grade level.
Centennial High School is roughly 135 students over capacity. Atholton High School, which exceeds its capacity by nearly 270 students, added a fourth lunch shift. Mount Hebron High School, with 240 students too many, has resorted to a lottery for coveted student parking spaces.
Such conditions frustrate students and staff alike.
"Once you get about 1,400 students, you lose that personal touch," said Howard High Principal Gene Streagle, wearing an earpiece and holding a walkie-talkie as he moved around the hallways to monitor the lunch crowd. "When you start climbing into the 1,500 and 1,600 [range], you don't know the names."
Sylvia Pattillo, Mount Hebron's principal, said that "it's nice to feel close, but this is pushing the closeness a little bit."
The crowded high schools are regarded as a sign of the future in Howard County, where school officials project 47,000 students in 2004 -- 11,000 more than this year.
The elementary school population is expected to peak at 21,300 students in 2001 and decline through 2004. Officials forecast that middle school enrollment will peak at close to 12,000 students in 2004.
High school enrollment is projected to peak at 16,500 students in 2008 -- 82 percent more students than last school year.
The county plans to spend $300 million in the next 10 years on renovation and new buildings, including multimillion dollar additions to four high schools and construction of seven elementary, four middle and four high schools.
The work is to include reconstruction of Wilde Lake High School, replacement of Ellicott Mills Middle School and system-wide renovations averaging $8.5 million each year for older schools.
High school crowding is expected to ease in 1996, when Howard County opens the new Wilde Lake and two additional high schools -- River Hill in Clarksville, which is home to Wilde Lake students this year, and a still unnamed school under construction in Long Reach.
In the meantime, students in the four crowded high schools complain about hallways in which hundreds of students with backpacks and books struggle to make their next class on time. The logjams sometimes lead to pushing and shoving.
"When you're walking through the hall, you stand still for a minute and then people push you," said Marie Hester, a 16-year-old Howard junior. "There's nowhere you can go."
Beth Davis, 15, an Atholton sophomore, sees the same problem at her school. "It's really hard to get through the hallway," she said. "I don't really like it."
Parking spaces also are scarce at Atholton, where cars routinely are parked across the street on Freetown Road, next to a grassy knoll.
"You have to get here at 7 a.m. to find a space," complained Colin Esaias, a 16-year-old Atholton senior. "There's almost 500 freshmen -- double the size of the senior class."
Students tell of other frustrations.
"It's harder to get special help from teachers," said Dan Keyser, 17, an Atholton senior. "I like it smaller, like it was last year. It was easier to move around."
The crowded conditions also take their toll on teachers.
"I'm very frustrated," said Bryan Rowe, a math teacher standing outside his classroom. "I've gone into this career to help kids. In order to help them, you have to work with them one-on-one."
He opened the door to a room filled with 34 geometry students and hardly space to move around.
"There isn't the time to work with the students," Mr. Rowe said. "You're taking teachers, and they're being drained by the class sizes."
Researchers say crowding can depress students' academic performance and result in higher teacher absenteeism.
"Students in larger schools do get less involved in school activities," said Paul Paulus, a University of Texas professor who has studied crowding in prisons, workplaces and schools for more than 25 years. "When people are crowded, they tend to withdraw. There's unfriendliness, as in big cities, and people fall into small cliques. Some become anti-sociable."
But he said crowding in schools tends to be temporary, "so you wouldn't expect some permanent effects on health."
Not everyone is demoralized by this year's large student population. At Howard High, teacher Carol Elders loves being in a portable classroom.
"It's a nice big room," she said. "It has windows on both sides. It's great. . . . I don't have to be in the hallway."
Monae Johnson, a 13-year-old Howard High freshman, also found a silver lining in the crowding. "I think it's a good opportunity to learn about different people, and I like that," she said. "If it were just possible to get fewer people in the hall . . ."
And though Mount Hebron's principal, Dr. Pattillo, is sometimes frustrated by the crowding, she urges students and staff to cooperate until the situation gets better.
"We're all in this together," she said. "We're going to work at resolving every problem that comes up. We just take it one day at a time."