School overcrowding – is the county making the right decisions?

BY MIKE PERSLEY

Every day outside of Rolling Terrace Elementary School students are given half an hour to run, play and take a break from a hard day of learning.

The playground sits on two tiers with a stairway that leads up to a basketball court. The children are allowed to run anywhere in between. But the two levels often make it hard to keep track of the children because for every fifty students outside at one time, there is just one instructor there to supervise them, the minimum allowed by state law.

 

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Rolling Terrace Elementary School playground and portable classrooms.

The reason is not one of neglect by the staff, but one of resources.

Rolling Terrace is currently 177 students over capacity, with that number expected to rise in the coming years. By 2015, enrollment at the school is expected to reach a high of 879 students, 207 over the buildings capacity, before slowly leveling off.

With so many students, there aren’t enough staff to add recess supervisors.

“You can’t see all of the children,”says Mindy Kassaraba, President of the Parent Teacher Association at Rolling Terrace. It’s hard to keep your eyes on all of them at once.”

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Rolling Terrace Elementary School.

Making things more difficult are the six portable classrooms that sit out on the lawn and obstruct the supervisor’s view, making it an“impossible task”to keep track of all of them.

Kassaraba, who has one child in the second grade at Rolling Terrace, and another who attended it before moving up to middle school last year, says that the school’s staff might stay silent about the their troubles, but she believes she speaks for them.

“It’s not just a matter of my child goes here,” she says, “But Id like to make sure that everyone’s kids can get a good education from this place.”

Among the other problems the school’s overcrowding causes, she claims, is that there is one guidance counselor for all 849 of its students.

Lunch, she says, begins as early as 10:30 a.m., and the increased traffic has taken a physical toll on the building itself.

Built in 1988 and without any substantial renovations, the school is finally scheduled for a $3 million renovation to its heating, venting, and air conditioning system this summer. Last year, a series of mold outbreaks left parents panicked about their children’s health and school officials scrambling for a solution to the problem.

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Takoma Park Elementary School is over capacity, according to city councilmember Tim Male.

School overcrowding in Takoma Park has become part of a larger trend across the county.

Montgomery County, already the state’s largest student population with just over 151,000 students, has seen a jump of nearly 14,000 students over the last six years. An additional 11,000 are expected to be added in the oncoming six.

The rapid influx of students has left city and county officials searching for ways to accommodate them.

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Takoma Park Elementary School.

Last November, in his personal blog, Takoma Park Councilmember Tim Male brought up the overcrowding issue in conjunction with the county’s plans to redevelop the area along New Hampshire Avenue and University Avenue in preparation for Takoma/Langley Transit Center stop of the Purple Line.

“City staff estimate that full construction of projected residential space envisioned under the plan would create housing for more than 6,200 new residents, including 900 more K-12 students,” the post says, “But given the school overcrowding we already have, where would even another 200 students go?”

Male, who has a son in Takoma Park Elementary and a daughter at Takoma Park Middle School (both of which are over capacity), says he’s sympathetic to the difficulties of planning development, but that the county is not paying enough attention to the public costs of such rapid development.

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Takoma Park Middle School.

“I understand, it’s hard to predict,” he says. “The last thing you want to do is overestimate, you don’t want to waste money. But if we continue to be conservative with how much demand we project, we will continue to lose capacity for our kids.”

There are efforts underway by the county to help the school system deal with the new population.

Last October, School Board Superintendent Joshua P. Starr proposed a $1.55 billion capital improvement budget that would lead to the construction of five new schools and 22 classroom-addition projects over the next six years.

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Piney Branch Elementary School, Takoma Park.

The real cost to meet the full range of needs, he said, would be $2.2 billion, but it would be “irresponsible” to request so much, given the counties limited resources, and so he cut his proposal down to $1.55 billion.

In November, the board passed the proposal unanimously and sent it to the County Executive’s office, where it was trimmed down to $1.117 billion for schools, still a record high.

The program is waiting to be voted on by the county council in May.

In January, County Executive Ike Leggett paid a visit to Annapolis along with executives from Prince George’s and Baltimore County to try to push lawmakers for additional school funding that would be used for school construction.

Their attempt is still in its early stages and the chances of passing legislation is unclear, due to the state’s current $431 million budget deficit.

“Anybody that owns a house knows it’s important to do maintenance,” says Dana Tofig, spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools. “We’ve got to keep our schools up with the times just like anything else.”

But the amount of money that goes into Takoma Park schools is not likely to have a big impact.

As Male points out, just over 1% of the county’s budget for schools goes to District 5, the district where Takoma Park is located.

“If trends continue, it’s not clear where we’ll be at in a few years,” he says. “You hope that we can make smart decisions.”

1 Comment on "School overcrowding – is the county making the right decisions?"

  1. Great article.

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