Increasing capacity `No. 1 focus'

New facilities to be opened in next 5 years

County system feels pressed for space


When Ebb Valley Elementary opens its doors to students and staff in northern Carroll County for the 2008-2009 school year, it will be the district's 15th new school in 17 years.

Though enrollment growth has been relatively stable in recent years, school officials are continuing to play catch-up to keep pace with the influx of new residents who have flocked to the rural Baltimore suburb, lured by lower housing costs and the school system's reputation as one of the state's highest-performing districts.

In addition to Ebb Valley, priority long-term construction projects on the system's facilities master plan include a high school in the northeast area, as well as South Carroll-area elementary and middle schools by 2011.

"These are the areas we feel need the relief," said Raymond Prokop, facilities director. "In the past 15 years, the county has grown by about a third. In square footage and the number of schools, the system has grown immensely" to keep pace with residential growth.

Prokop said that addressing capacity issues within the schools "has been our No. 1 focus."

Some parents worry that construction of Ebb Valley won't be completed within the next two years, but school officials have their fingers crossed that they can overcome early obstacles in land acquisition to keep the project on schedule.

Evidence of crowded schools can be seen across the county.

Recently, Carroll County school board members unanimously approved a compromise plan to move nearly 200 fifth-graders this fall from Hampstead and Manchester elementaries to a cluster of portable classrooms at North Carroll Middle School.

To ease crowding at both elementary schools and to help accommodate construction of all-day kindergarten classrooms, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said, school officials need to move all of this fall's fifth-graders from Manchester to North Carroll Middle and about half of the fifth-graders from Hampstead.

The five-member board approved a plan that allows a one-year exemption for Hampstead parents who make a written request to the principal that their children not be moved to North Carroll during the 2006-2007 school year. After that, Hampstead fifth-graders who are bound for North Carroll would be required to attend fifth grade at the middle school.

Ecker said his primary concern was the effect of crowded classrooms on the children's education. School officials have projected that Hampstead, with 583 pupils, will be at 117 percent of capacity this fall, and that Manchester, with 767 pupils, will be at 120 percent of capacity.

Despite the growing pains, Carroll remains among the state's highest-performing school districts -- often in the top three or four among the state's 24 systems.

In results from last year's Maryland School Assessment exams in reading and math, Carroll County children continued to outscore the statewide averages across the board in all grades tested.

Carroll showed steady progress at nearly every grade level tested in the reading and math categories, with seventh-grade reading singled out as the only area showing no improvement, according to statewide results. Seventh-grade reading scores dipped 1.4 percentage points from 2004, with 81.5 percent of pupils passing the test in 2005.

Fifth-grade and sixth-grade math pupils posted the largest gains. Results show 81.5 percent of fifth-graders passed the math exam, an 8-percentage-point gain over 2004, and 70.9 percent of sixth-graders passed in posting an 8.9-percentage-point gain.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires states to set increasingly tougher accountability standards each year, with the goal of having 100 percent of students passing statewide assessments by 2014.

School officials have said that while they are pleased with the system's overall progress, they are concerned about the rate of progress in special education students and students with limited proficiency in English.

Special education students made gains in every category, except sixth-grade reading, where scores dropped less than 1 percentage point with 43.6 percent of students passing. The largest gain for special education was in fourth-grade math, with 60.7 percent of pupils passing the exam -- a gain of 14.4 percentage points over last year.

The board of education's proposed $304 million operating budget -- for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1 -- includes funding intervention services and programs for these students.

The spending plan includes $1.6 million to hire 22 special education resource teachers; about $400,000 to hire five reading intervention specialists and provide professional development; and about $560,000 to add guidance counselors to reduce student-to-counselor ratios across the system.

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