Enrollment falling at Cascade Elementary

January 02, 2000

Cascade Elementary

By BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

CASCADE - Five years ago, twice as many students attended the elementary school in this mountain community. But the closing of a neighboring U.S. Army base caused enrollment to fall steeply.

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As Fort Ritchie's 638 acres were emptied of 2,000 employees, many children of military parents left the area. From 1993 to 1998, Cascade Elementary School's enrollment went from 350 to 160.

As of Sept. 30, it had climbed back up to 171, but that is the smallest population in the school system, according to Director of Facilities Management Dennis McGee.


If PenMar Development Corp. does its job, the school will swell again. PenMar is charged with attracting business to the Army base, but unexploded ordnance may make that difficult.

The former board of Washington County Commissioners asked the Washington County Board of Education to keep the school open until 2003 to stimulate economic development.

But the base's future has clouded Cascade's. Two weeks ago, Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook told the School Board it may not need to keep its five-year promise. "The outlook has changed," he said.

School Board President Paul Bailey said the board will study the issue, but he doesn't want to close Cascade.

"We have no intentions of appointing a redistricting committee," he said.

Declining enrollment has helped the school, which has smaller classes and test scores that are improving. Its overall Maryland School Performance Assessment Program index rose from 47.1 percent to 48.8 percent last year.

The 54,646-square-foot building is at 33 percent capacity. Parents and teachers say space to spare is a positive environment.

"Everybody wishes they had this type of classroom," said third-grade teacher Jane Schlotterbeck. MSPAP scores rose in five out of six subject areas for her class last year and she believes that's directly related to the size of her class.

With 14 students, Schlotterbeck can concentrate more on each child. "I think the kids really benefit," she said.

Principal Carolyn Moore said the school has a lot of community involvement. "Parents are here all the time," she said. "It's a total family school."

Moore came to Cascade last year after working at three other elementary schools with populations of 500-plus. "I was thrilled to come and work here," she said.

Moore said she sees fewer discipline problems, with students better behaved and teachers more relaxed.

"When you have more space, people become less anxious and less frustrated. It has a calming effect," she said.

A pervasive tranquility was noticeable in a recent visit. Some classrooms, such as the music area, were empty and unlighted. Students have art, music and Project Challenge once a week as Cascade shares those teachers with other schools.

As a result of declining enrollment, the school cut some classes. It went from three first-, second- and third-grade classes to two each. It used to have two fourth and fifth grades, now it has one each. Three kindergarten classes became one.

Cascade's overall teacher-to-student ratio is 19 to 1, slightly lower than the county average. In third grade and below, most of the school's classes have fewer than 15 students.

Fourth and fifth grades have about 28 students, but other teachers help divide the larger classes. The school uses parallel block schedules so that some students may get computer training while others are in language arts.

PTA Vice President Carolyn Stotler, who attended Cascade as a child, moved her kids there from nearby Smithsburg Elementary School. It was a move she didn't want at first.

She now says it's the best thing that's ever happened to Kasie, a fourth-grader, and Brandon, a fifth-grader. "They're much better off here," she said. "Because everybody's so close. It's like a big family."

Smithsburg Elementary, the closest to Cascade, now has about 376 students using 77 percent of the building's capacity.

The town of Cascade predates Fort Ritchie, and the original school was built before 1924, before the installation opened. It was a resort to which the railroad brought vacationers from around the region.

Cascade survived the Army's departure, but the end of the relationship brought anxiety.

"The school lost a very good, very supportive business partner," said Moore. The Army often donated supplies. When the fort closed its doors in September 1998, parents went to the school in tears, she said.

Moore said she is confident the school will remain open, but the future is hazy beyond that.

"I don't know what effect the latest development at Fort Ritchie will have," she said.

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