Howard toddlers a test for schools

Count: One crowded district's PTA census dispels the notion that school populations are leveling off

the numbers have implications for development across the county.

March 08, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Propped on shopping carts at the supermarket, or playing in the nursery at the local gym, the toddlers of River Hill look so innocent.

Few would suspect the truth: that the smiling tots swarming over Columbia's newest and toniest village are the agents of a broad upheaval in Howard County schools and development.

County officials and developers say the legions of River Hill kids could create enough pressure to:

* Slam the door on new homes in the county's rural west in 2003.

* Force the county to pay for even more school construction at a time when tax revenues are expected to decline.

* Build momentum for moving students from high-performing districts like River Hill into lower-scoring ones, an option that is the third rail of Howard politics.

"This might be bringing something to a head that needs to be brought to a head," said developer James R. Schulte, who sits on the committee that administers the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, the law that uses school enrollment projections to regulate development.

It all began last fall, when the PTA at Pointers Run Elementary in River Hill undertook a door-to-door survey to prove what their eyes told them: that the county's formula for projecting student enrollment greatly underestimated the number of small kids in their district.

The PTA's hunch was right - and how. Its tally showed official estimates to be off by about 35 percent - so flawed that the school system will likely adopt a new formula and new head counts for every school by summer.

School enrollment projections are the genetic code of Howard and many other counties. They are the data from which all else follows: where new houses will be built, which neighborhoods need a new school, which roads will see heavier traffic - and whose kids will have to change schools because of redistricting.

There is a good chance, developers and county officials say, that new projections prompted by the PTA count will close development in parts of the county miles from Pointers Run because of intricacies in the county's slow-growth ordinance.

The PTA's activism also could help move the county in the direction many of the PTA's members dread the most: wholesale redistricting at the elementary and middle school level.

By forcing the county to acknowledge the scope of growth in the county's newer, wealthier areas, the PTA may have indirectly helped build the case for moving students from those areas into the older parts of Columbia, developers and county officials say.

If the new formula "results in higher numbers, we'll have to develop a capital plan and redistricting plan that deals with those numbers," said Maurice F. Kalin, associate school superintendent.

The River Hill story is a textbook example of how activism undertaken for parochial goals can have unintended results.

The PTA wasn't seeking to affect development with its census - the Pointers Run district was already closed to building applications last year because of crowding - but only to win the school more resources and speed the construction of a new school nearby.

PTA President Patrice Durham says she was "shocked," watching a County Council hearing last month, to hear speakers invoke the PTA's data as if it were the Warren Commission report or a Supreme Court ruling.

"We have over one thousand members in our PTA, and our interests are based solely on our interests," said Durham. "We didn't intend to have that impact."

The PTA was motivated by the numbers, Durham said. Pointers Run opened in 1991 with a capacity of 544 students. Two additions later, and with three portable classrooms outside, it now holds more than 1,000 students - so many that it is slated to have 10 first-grade classes next year.

The effects of crowding are everywhere: the gifted and talented teacher who had a supply closet for an office; the class that had to meet in a hallway area where other classes walked through; the elaborate shifts at lunchtime, including a clever system of colored tape on the cafeteria floor to create separate lines for menu options: blue for pizza, red for tacos ("it's faster for the cafeteria worker to go down the line if it's `pizza, pizza, pizza,' than `taco, pizza, taco, pizza,'" Durham said).

Like a city jammed with unemployed workers, the crowded school spawned unrest. What frustrated parents most was that the crunch came as such a surprise to school officials: In 1998 and 1999, the school opened with about 50 students more than predicted, and in September, 83 more kids showed up than expected - the equivalent of four extra classes.

That's when the PTA mobilized, distributing more than 1,000 surveys to parents and going door-to-door to the 200 who didn't respond. Besides counting toddlers, Durham said, volunteers registered additional children on the way: "For those who were pregnant, we made a note of it."

Tough forecasting

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