Learning lessons of size School: Officials are trying to make a more hospitable environment at Westminster High, the largest in suburban Baltimore

"It's like a small city."

October 17, 1998|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Sherri-Le Bream presides over a community of more than 2,300, a staff of more than 220, a public transportation fleet of 42 vehicles and a yearly budget of $9.9 million.

She's the principal at Westminster High School. But sometimes she feels more like a mayor.

"It's like a small city," Bream said of the monolithic, brick structure, the largest school in Baltimore's suburbs.

Just how big is Westminster High? It has a larger population than the Carroll County town of New Windsor and more students than Western Maryland College, in a building about three times the size of a Wal-Mart.

And it's going to get bigger. Sitting at the heart of one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, the school has 361 students more than the 2,000 it can hold. Enrollment is expected to top 2,500 in three years.

Students complain about shoving their way through the halls every day, walking a quarter-mile to the parking lot, intense competition for spots on athletic teams and feeling lost in the shuffle.

"I've given up on being polite; you just have to push," said senior Amanda Cofflin, describing her strategy for getting around a school that has three gymnasiums, two cafeterias and six portable classrooms.

Built in 1971, Westminster High was the first new high school in the county since Francis Scott Key opened in 1958. School officials were more concerned with cost-efficiency than creating a nurturing environment for students.

A poll of last year's ninth-graders found that the No. 1 fear among new students was the physical size of the school.

"This was a centrally located high school, and the thinking at the time was to make it a major community center," said Vernon F. Smith, assistant superintendent of administration for Carroll schools.

In recent years, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, research has shown that student attendance, participation and satisfaction improve in smaller schools. As a result, educators are now focusing more attention on the implications of school size.

Carroll's school board has set 1,200 as the maximum number of students for the new high schools in South Carroll and Westminster, scheduled to open in 2001 and 2003, respectively.

The new schools are expected to ease overcrowding in both areas.

At Westminster High, Bream and her staff have made it a priority to make the school feel less impersonal.

Assistant principals are assigned to follow a class through the entire four years of high school. Student achievements -- academic, athletic and outside of school -- are mentioned during the morning announcements. Last month, the school received a state grant to create a transition program for eighth-graders and to expand its orientation program for freshmen.

Still, the massive scale of the school is hard to ignore.

"With all the ground we've got to cover, after a week in here it feels like you've walked 150 miles," said Chuck Arenzt, who's on the school's maintenance staff.

Cafeteria manager Margie Bading, who's been at Westminster High since it opened, has a daunting grocery list. Each day, students drink 1,350 cartons of milk and eat 180 pounds of french fries. Her recipe for spaghetti sauce calls for 40 gallons of tomato sauce and 80 pounds of ground beef.

For many students, the lobby is the worst part of Westminster High.

Within seconds after the class-change bell rings, waves of students stream from the halls and stairways that converge on the small space.

"You can't move," said junior Rhiannon Zablocki, 16.

Even the homecoming dance has fallen casualty to the school's size. Last year, school officials began limiting attendance to 1,200 students because of space constraints.

Tickets went on sale on a Saturday morning, two weeks before the Oct. 10 dance, first to seniors, then to underclassmen. In three hours, 1,010 tickets were gone. The remaining 190 were sold in school, at specified times, based on class seniority.

"It's like waiting in line for Orioles tickets," said junior John Zentz, 16, who decided to forgo this year's dance. "Plus, when the dance comes, there's so many people in the gym it's insane."

Students who drive to school say parking is not a simple matter, even with five parking lots. Parking spaces are at such a premium that each month students who earn perfect attendance are rewarded with prime spots in the teachers' lot, which is closest to the school's front entrance.

"You have to get here at 7: 20 a.m. to get a spot in the 'jock lot,' " said senior Amanda Cofflin, referring to the lot by the locker room entrance.

Although teachers encourage students at Westminster High to get involved in extracurricular activities, sometimes a large school creates barriers to participation. The competition for sports teams is intense, and some students say the large selection of clubs can be overwhelming.

Varsity basketball coach Dave Byers said about 50 students typically try out for the 12 to 15 spots available on the freshman and junior varsity teams. Fewer go out for the varsity squad.

"By the time they get to the varsity age they're probably smart enough to look around and say, 'It's impossible, I'm not as good,' so they don't come out," Byers said.

He said that at a large school like Westminster High, students who aren't particularly outgoing or competitive may miss out when it comes to after-school activities.

Ultimately, Bream said, it's up to students to define their high school experiences.

"Students here can be as obscure as they want to be, but they can also be as well-known as they want," she said.

"You can be very successful here, but you have to speak up. And I'm not sure that's so bad."

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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