Chadwick pupils cope with crowd Balto. Co. officials debate solutions

December 21, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

At Woodlawn's Chadwick Elementary School, crowding governs almost every aspect of student life -- dictating how children eat, sing and go to the bathroom.

The cafeteria is so jammed that students taught in portable classrooms must bring food back to eat at their desks. Classrooms are in such short supply that art and music teachers must travel around the school with their materials loaded on carts.

"We even have a bathroom schedule," for classes of younger students, says Principal Linda Proudfoot.

Chadwick, Baltimore County's most crowded elementary at 36.5 percent above its capacity, illustrates a problem that has bedeviled county officials during the enrollment surge of the 1990s to 105,520 this school year.

County officials have responded with measures designed to limit crowding. One "temporary" law -- enacted in 1990 and still in effect -- prohibits homebuilding near elementary schools that, like Chadwick, are more than 20 percent over capacity and lack a plan for relief.

But parents are clamoring for a more comprehensive, long-term solution.

With $181 million aimed at school construction projects since 1995, and the addition of nearly 9,000 seats in five years, county executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger says the crowding problem is fast disappearing. He opposes extending the moratorium or replacing it with a broader law, saying that would discourage economic development.

Ruppersberger notes that five elementaries -- Chadwick, Deer Park, Hebbville, Johnnycake and Shady Spring -- are crowded enough to trigger the building moratorium, compared with an average of 13 schools in the law's first three years. Yet plans for additions or redistricting may keep the moratorium list clear this year -- which would mark the first time since the law was approved.

Despite praising Ruppersberger's efforts, the Baltimore County Council and parents' groups want long-term protection against more Chadwicks -- a stronger law that would limit development around all crowded schools or in areas without adequate parkland.

"My daughter's eating breakfast at 8 a.m. and lunch at 10 [minutes] of 11," Lisa Cohen, president of the Deer Park Elementary School PTA, said about her kindergartner. A 100-seat addition is planned for September to alleviate crowding at the Randallstown school, but Cohen said politicians "need to stop being afraid of developers."

Council members have sought a tougher law to ease crowding, but have been unable to agree on an approach.

Last year, the council rejected a stronger proposal from Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat. And despite promises of renewed action this year by council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, no new bill has emerged.

Next year could be different.

"I'm going to give it my best shot because I think it's essential," says Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county-Owings Mills Republican. "We got elected to stand up and be counted. I will bring it up in 1998."

Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat who is slated to become council chairman in January and who represents the area around Chadwick, adds, "I want to see something happen with that for sure."

Several council members point to Honeygo, a 3,000-acre tract northeast of White Marsh, as an example of planning public services ahead of development. Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat who represents that area, fears the county won't be able to continue to afford the "catch-up" spending of the past few years.

Parents at the crowded schools agree with Gardina and aren't impressed with the executive's statements that the problem has been solved.

"We're bursting at the seams right now," says Chadwick PTA President Anthony T. Rollie. "It's chaotic."

Two key factors have kept Chadwick over capacity. First, row upon row of townhouses and apartments have been built nearby -- 709 new units have been occupied in the past nine years, county records show. Second, younger families have been moving to the area.

A four-classroom addition, attached to Chadwick's main building by an unheated walkway, was built three years ago and helped temporarily. The school also has a portable trailer and a two-room modular unit -- yet, it is still 169 students over its 463-student capacity.

On a recent afternoon at Chadwick, teacher Margaret Taylor has 26 third- and fourth-graders working at tables in excited groups on a classroom project.

Working with groups as large as 30 is difficult with only a part-time aide, she says. "Every child needs individual aid. It would be great if you had 18 kids," she adds, shrugging at that impossible dream.

Crowding has taxed common areas such as the cafeteria, too. Lunch starts at 11 a.m. and lasts until 1: 30 p.m.

The school also has devised a complicated dismissal procedure to stagger the number of departing students.

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