County growth puts strain on school system

September 07, 2005|by KAREN HANNA


With predictions of an explosion of growth over the next few years, Washington County Public Schools began the first days of the 2005-06 school year with the following numbers:

  • Nineteen new portable classrooms

  • About 400 additional students

  • Three new bus routes

  • About 219 new teachers

  • Seventy new teaching positions

At Boonsboro High School, Principal Martin Green welcomed a boy on Aug. 30 whom he believed to be the school's 1,000th student. New arrivals keep coming, Green said during a tour of the high school, which opened more than 46 years ago to about 500 students.

According to a study prepared last year by Public Pathways Inc., schools in the southern part of Washington County and areas surrounding the City of Hagerstown could be the hardest hit by new enrollments in the next few years. The report projected that the system, which reported 20,310 students in kindergarten through 12th grade last school year, would gain about 3,500 students by 2010.


The report includes information on enrollment increases due to both growth and program changes, such as the implementation of all-day kindergarten and half-day pre-kindergarten programs, school system public information officer Carol Mowen said last week.

The preliminary enrollment of students in grades kindergarten through 12 on Aug. 29, the first day all kindergarten students were expected to be in class, was 20,581 students, Mowen said. An additional 141 students were expected to attend class eventually, bringing the total to 20,722 students, Mowen said.

She said on Sept. 1 that she did not know the number of pre-kindergarten students this year.

Fewer than 20,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12 attended classes at Washington County Public Schools in 2003, according to figures provided by the school system.

To accommodate the increase, Green had rooms split, lockers moved and walls built. He hired seven new teachers and created 2 1/2 new teaching positions.

"We hate classes of 30, but (the school is) growing so rapidly, we really don't have any other choice," Green said.

According to numbers provided by the school system, about half of its elementary schools are expected to surpass capacity this year. Capacity rates at about half of the school system's middle schools and high schools will reach or exceed 90 percent.

Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan acknowledged in an interview last month that the school system is experiencing some "growing pains," but she said she is confident everyone - both new and settled families and students - will benefit from the county's increases.

Class averages

The school system's current and proposed Capital Improvement Programs both call for major construction projects every year for the foreseeable future. The proposed plan, which will go before the Washington County Commissioners later this fall, calls for spending about $216 million on new buildings, major maintenance projects and land purchases between fiscal year 2007 and 2012, said Rodney Turnbough, director of facilities management.

In the meantime, Morgan said, the school system might have to consider options such as redistricting, establishing magnet schools or adjusting class sizes.

"Right now, we have been able to stick to our (class-size) averages, but just because we've run out of space - and we're running out of space for portables - the choice we may have to take, and it may be the one we don't want to take, is to raise class sizes at some of our buildings," Morgan said.

JoEtta Palkovitz-Brown, executive director of early childhood education, said the school system tries to maintain student-teacher ratios of about 18-to-1 at its Title I elementary schools and 21-to-1 at its non-Title I elementary schools. Title I funds are distributed by the federal government to offset the effects of poverty in poor schools.

High school class sizes depend on the subject and school, Boyd Michael, executive director of secondary education, said last week.

The average high school class size last year was about 23 or 24 students, Michael said. Non-honors classes typically are smaller than honors classes, he said.

At South Hagerstown High School, which last year was the only high school in the county with a capacity rate greater than 100 percent, Principal Rick Akers said physical education classes taught by more than one teacher can have 60 students or more.

According to Akers, South High picked up about 50 students during the course of the last school year, bringing its enrollment to about 1,150. About 1,100 students had enrolled for class before school began last month, Akers said.

"We're at a little over 1,200 right now, and we're enrolling as fast as we can," Akers said.

Proposed construction

About 44 students are in one of three sections of diversified occupations, a class for seniors interested in working part time during the day, teacher Ralph Stottlemyer said.

South High's enrollment was 863 in 2001, according to figures provided by the school system.

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