New school already battles overcrowding

Enrollment balloons

more teachers hired

September 06, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Outside yesterday, dignitaries all the way up to Maryland's governor praised the beautiful new $13.4 million school, with its five computers in every classroom and its oversized gymnasium and its wonderful new-school smell.

Inside, teachers tried to figure out just what to do with the 940 youngsters enrolled at New Town Elementary School - a school built for 707 children. An additional 10 enrolled yesterday at the school in Owings Mills, one of Baltimore County's fastest-growing areas, and more could show up today.

Perhaps portable classrooms will be trucked in; for sure, music teacher Larry Friend has lost his room. Soon, he will instead have a cart to roll from class to class, going to his students rather than having them come to him. Another teacher will need Friend's classroom. Also gone is one of the teacher workrooms.

"This school is so attractive that many people want to come here," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said as he presided over a ribbon-cutting at the school. "Maybe a few too many, but we're working on that."

In recognizing Donald L. Arnold, president of the county school board, the governor said with a laugh: "He promised me he's going to handle the overcrowding by this afternoon."

Not that soon, but officials are scrambling to do something to relieve the crowding, which has left many teachers with more than 30 children in their classes. (The county's goal is to have 25 or 26 children per class in elementary school, said Charles A. Herndon, school district spokesman.)

This summer, as registrations flew past the 700-pupil mark, extra teachers were hired for New Town - seven of them. Now, Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has promised to provide six more teachers (by next week, it is hoped). Principal Beth Strauss just has to figure out where to put them.

The two-story school - with its high ceilings, wide hallways and extra-large classrooms - doesn't on its face appear to be crowded, though each class line seemed to go on and on as it snaked through the corridors. When one line approached 30, the teacher remarked: "Yes, they're all mine."

The school almost wasn't built this large. Over the years, there was talk of housing 500 children, then of including grades kindergarten through eight, then of only 350. Finally, officials settled on 700.

Actually, the school almost wasn't built at all. Projections showed that this part of Owings Mills, one of Baltimore County's two designated growth areas, didn't have enough children to justify building another elementary school. The state won't pay for schools where the numbers don't support it.

So developers of New Town put up the $364,000 needed to do architectural and engineering studies - meaning the school could hit the fast track once the numbers caught up to what they were anticipating, county officials said.

The proof started arriving at New Town on Tuesday, the first day of classes. As late as last school year, officials expected only 600 children. Just in the past week, 80 more enrolled, Herndon said.

"The closer we got to school, the faster the people came through the door," he said. "We've had a really good track record [in enrollment projections]. It's real unusual for us to be off by that much."

A larger than expected number of kindergartners are enrolled (174), pupils who officials didn't know existed. Herndon said he thinks the crowding also was pushed along by developers who used the new school as a selling point for their new homes: 176 of New Town's children are new to the county's public schools, he said.

The growth is still coming. County population estimates projected the Owings Mills area would have 78,000 people in 2000. Instead, there were 83,406 - the number the county had projected for five years from now, said county spokeswoman Elise Armacost. In the Owings Mills/Randallstown planning area, she said, more than 3,200 housing units have been approved over the last five years but only about 800 have been built, meaning many more could be on the way.

At New Town yesterday, first-year teacher Jennifer Gillespie had 32 children in her class. There are 34 on her roll book.

"It's a little overwhelming," she said as her charges filed in after recess. "Simple procedures take so long [with 32 pupils]. Going to the bathroom takes so long. Lining up takes so long. Settling down takes so long just because there are so many.

"Getting another teacher will definitely help."

Barbara Varga's daughter Jessica is one of the many kindergartners here. There are 28 in Jessica's class, compared with the private pre-K she attended where there were 20 or so.

"I love it," Varga said of the school. "It's set up beautifully. It's very organized. It's just maybe too many students."

Strauss, who was principal at nearby Deer Park Elementary School for six years, knows there's a lot of tweaking that still needs to be done, but she said she and her site-based management team will be sitting down to figure out where everyone will go.

There are seats for every child, but some have to double up on lockers. There are additional supplies for every new pupil. The library - still empty yesterday because of a shipping glitch - should have enough books for everyone.

"Let me know if there's anything I can do for you," an official from the governor's office told Strauss as he was leaving yesterday. "Except build you another floor."

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