Closing underused schools: There's room for debate

For now, Bear Creek's teachers savor space

April 20, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff

Rose Anne Kearns couldn't imagine what she'd do with a school full of pupils.

Enrollment figures show that her school -- Bear Creek Elementary in Dundalk -- could hold another 230 pupils, but Kearns, the principal, says that would mean "teachers in the halls and the lobby trying to teach."

As the Baltimore County school board takes a preliminary step tonight toward closing schools for the first time in more than 15 years, it must decide how small it can allow elementary schools to become.

While declining enrollment at some schools such as Bear Creek doesn't necessarily mean smaller class sizes, it does provide space -- a luxury unheard of elsewhere in the county.

But school officials -- who tonight will start revising the policy for identifying which schools to close -- worry not only about saving money by consolidating schools. They also fear that smaller schools won't be able to offer a full range of education programs.

Parents in communities such as Bear Creek, however, insist that the smaller enrollment is helping their children learn.

"We now have space here to do things," says Bear Creek PTA President Karen Bova. "Every teacher has a room to work in."

While schools in the western, northeastern and northwestern areas of the county are bursting with pupils, enrollment has been steadily dropping in the southeast area of the county.

No specific schools have been identified for closing, but discussions will focus in the fall on shutting down one or more elementary schools in areas such as Dundalk and Edgemere, perhaps as early as fall 2000.

Opened in 1955 in a neighborhood filled with Bethlehem Steel workers, Bear Creek has a capacity of 756 pupils. But as the neighborhood has grown older and employment has shrunk at the area's large manufacturers, families with younger children no longer fill every two-story brick rowhouse.

Today, Bear Creek's enrollment is about 520 pupils. Charlesmont Elementary is less than a 10-minute walk away, and Battle Grove Elementary can be seen across Bear Creek. Like Bear Creek, both of those schools could hold several hundred more children.

Like most elementaries, Bear Creek often serves as the center of the community -- home to such activities as neighborhood meetings, child care programs and karate classes. The playground and adjoining park are often filled with children after school and on weekends.

Despite being only about two-thirds full, Bear Creek has no empty classrooms. All of the school's "special subject" teachers -- vocal and instrumental music and art -- enjoy their own classrooms, even part-time art teacher Pam Adkins.

"Last year, when I didn't have my own classroom, I had to put all of the art supplies on a cart and take it into the classroom," Adkins says. "One morning, I had a cart full of paint for a kindergarten project and I went around a corner too fast, and there was paint everywhere."

This year, in her own room three days a week, Adkins is able to leave her supplies in one place, hang up student work and do messy art projects without fear of spilling paint in other teachers' classrooms.

It's not only the art and music teachers who have their own classrooms.

There are two special education rooms -- one for primary grades, the other for intermediate grades -- that allow children with disabilities to be pulled out of regular classrooms for small-group instruction.

The school has two reading instruction rooms, a science room and two other classrooms for the county's southeast area regional program for children with autism.

There's even a classroom set aside for Open Door, a nonprofit group that runs before- and after-school child care programs in many county schools. The school's mentor teacher, Andrea Kowaleski, has her own office -- a room smaller than typical classrooms, but large enough for a class in the county's more crowded schools.

To be sure, the extra classrooms don't mean smaller class sizes at Bear Creek. Teachers are assigned to schools by enrollment, not the number of classrooms.

Still, having extra space is a luxury for instruction, says Kearns, who is in her seventh year as principal at Bear Creek.

"We could consolidate a little bit, but if we had a class in every classroom, we would need to make a lot of changes," Kearns says. "Our current size seems to work really well for providing the best instruction we can for our students."

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