Don't be `pound-foolish' on sizing schools


May 09, 1999|By MIKE BURNS

ARCHITECTS HAVE one perspective, the finance people have another. Educators may have one view, parents a different opinion and students may even have a third.

That's part of the predicament in deciding what size to build new high schools in Carroll County, specifically in the areas of Westminster and Eldersburg.

The projections of high school enrollment increases, and in what areas, are fundamental. But they vary considerably when you're looking five years down the pike and Carroll's residential population growth is uncertain.

There are economies of scale in building multiple schools to the same design. There may be savings in that bidding process.

Yet the fact is that schools are designed to educate our children, to prepare them to succeed in life and not just on some standardized tests.

Schools aren't meant to simply meet a legal burden in the most cost-efficient manner, in spite of warranted grumbling about the size of the annual school budget and the newfangled equipment that's put into new schools, computers replacing blackboard slates and so forth.

At $90 million in county funds, the school budget is a major obligation for all taxpayers, not just those with children in schools.

And when you're talking about high schools that are expected to cost nearly $30 million apiece to build, public attention becomes sharply focused on the issue.

Not too large or too small

The citizenry should appreciate the advantage of creating schools that are small enough to give children a chance to feel a meaningful part of their high school, yet large enough to provide comprehensive programs.

Kids who strongly identify with their school typically perform better academically and have a greater respect for the school.

They have a better chance to participate in activities, sports and special events. They can know more of their fellow pupils, and be known by them, which builds a stronger school spirit and an individual's confidence.

The original proposal was to build two nearly identical high schools of 1,200-student capacity, one opening two years after the other.

Representatives of the two communities argued over which should be constructed first. Concerns lingered about whether the state would pay to build two new high schools. Planning commission members questioned whether two schools were needed, if the system would implement redistricting to fill county schools with vacant seats.

Then questions arose over whether the long selected Westminster site would be suitable because of dangerous traffic patterns.

The county commissioners considered building just one new high school, but with a 1,600-pupil capacity, and a $10 million higher price tag.

That didn't sit well with most people, especially those in Westminster who saw their proposed school disappearing.

Last week the commissioners and school board agreed to build the two schools at 1,200-pupil classroom size. But the Eldersburg school is to have a cafeteria and library large enough for eventual expansion to 1,600 pupils.

That would provide for future expansion (and possible use of portable classrooms). But it also threatens to become swift reality, duplicating the kind of overcrowded high schools than already short-change students in the county's two high-growth areas.

Huge Westminster High

Westminster High, with more than 2,300 students, is among the largest in Maryland. Its hallways and other common facilities are overburdened. There's too much competition to participate in extracurricular activities. Kids with average talents feel shut out of exploring their interests.

A friend of mine quit a rewarding part-time job in order to be at home after high school classes, because her two children don't have the ability or interests to involve themselves in extracurricular activities after school.

Attendance at the homecoming dance is limited because of the huge enrollment. Some classes even look like college lecture halls, with too many kids and too many questions unanswered.

Extraordinary opportunity

Carroll County has an extraordinary opportunity today to build two new high schools that will meet the best interests of the students, educators and the community.

They would immediately alleviate overburdened high schools in the county's growth areas, allowing existing schools to expand options for students. A dozen former principals and ex-superintendents of Carroll schools have jointly urged the commissioners and school board to limit any new high school to 1,200 pupils.

Public schools exist for more than bare instruction. They must provide opportunities for youth to explore new interests, to develop social skills, to learn about life and grow into adulthood.

High schools need to be the right size to accomplish these purposes.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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