Seeking a solution to crowd control

Officials hope plan for redistricting will help Bel Air schools

February 14, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

It's lunchtime at C. Milton Wright High School in Harford County, when 500 hungry students rush into the cafeteria, pressing past the 500 who have just eaten. They have 25 minutes to file through the lines, find a seat, eat, clean up and get out so the next 500 can herd in.

It takes four lunch periods, four assistant principals with walkie-talkies, four teachers and three custodians -- not to mention cafeteria workers -- to get the 1,840 students fed each day.

"We've reached the point we can no longer manage," Principal Thomas Ackerman said.

In the fast-growing Bel Air area, C. Milton Wright, at 216 students over capacity, is not alone. Crowding starts at the schools that provide students to C. Milton Wright: Forest Hill Elementary is 95 pupils over capacity, and Southampton Middle, where crowding is worst, has 2,008 pupils packed into a school built for 1,509 -- and a lawn crammed with more than a dozen portable classrooms.

County school officials hope the Board of Education will approve a plan to redistrict some students, eliminate school boundary exceptions and use more portable classrooms to relieve the pressure. The board is holding public meetings on the issue at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Feb. 27 at C. Milton Wright before it makes a decision next month.

"We believe we are in an absolutely critical situation," said Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas. "I'm always sensitive to the fact that change is difficult for families. But the kids, once they make the change, are very adaptable."

Parent Laurie Sweeney agrees change is not appealing, but when she watches classes change at Southampton Middle, she says it's easy to see that someone has to go.

"When you stand there and see the sea of humanity surging toward you, it's a little frightening," she said. "They have to move people."

Some parents say they don't mind change if it's part of a long-term solution. But school officials acknowledge that enrollment projections show the schools will be back in the same crowded boat -- in just a few years.

Even if all 15 of the plan's points are implemented, said William Ekey, director of secondary education, by 2008 C. Milton Wright is projected to be 350 students over capacity and Southampton, 437.

"Are they expecting a bunch of fifth-grade dropouts?" said Nancy Miller, who has two children at Forest Hill Elementary and one in preschool. "Where are these kids supposed to go to school?"

The proposals would move children from portions of the Forest Hill, Southampton and C. Milton Wright districts to less-crowded schools to the north and west. But some of those schools, officials said, are projected to become crowded in a few years, too.

Boundary exceptions -- allowing children to attend schools outside their districts -- would be eliminated at the three locations, Haas said. This year, exceptions account for 41 extra students at Forest Hill, 13 at C. Milton Wright and four at Southampton.

Enrollment would be reviewed every year, and parents are concerned that students could be moved several times.

In the 1990s, the state and county spent $98.7 million on eight new elementary schools, one middle school and renovations, additions and upgrades at others, officials say. One project was an addition to C. Milton Wright.

That helped meet space needs in the mid-1990s, Ackerman said, but the growth hasn't stopped. He has six portables and is on the list to receive four more.

With a classroom carved into the computer technician's workroom, and 30 or more students crammed into rooms built for far fewer, Ackerman said he's running out of options.

He likened the situation to an overfilled balloon. "The balloon's going to pop, you just don't know when," he said. "No matter how good the kids are and no matter how cooperative the staff is, you just can't keep stuffing people in here."

And he'll be getting at least 100 more students next year.

Miller said the county won't find a lasting solution by moving students. "Build us two or three more middle schools and high schools," she said.

But the county must prove to the state that new schools are needed, said schools spokesman Donald R. Morrison, and "we don't have enough students over capacity to fill a new school."

Meanwhile, Sweeney's seventh-grader, Sean, has gym class on the auditorium stage, playing volleyball with a beach ball. "The point that Southampton is at is ludicrous," she said.

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