Some of the most successful public schools in Maryland and Virginia are also the most crowded, a News4 I-Team investigation has found.
Rapid population growth coupled with limited funding of new school construction has left dozens of public schools operating above recommended enrollment -- and led some schools to the widespread use of portable classrooms.
One school had to buy and plans to renovate a nearby 5-story office building to handle the overflow.
Ashley Roberts, who teaches math at Urbana Middle School, said enrollment in some of her classes has topped 40 students. Roberts said the school’s students have thrived despite the crowded conditions, but she said the heavy enrollment adds significantly to the workload of teachers.
“There are times when you can't put a lesson together, because there are just too many kids," Roberts said.
Urbana Middle is part of Frederick County Public Schools, which will begin the 2014-2015 school year with at least two school buildings operating more than 20 percent above the enrollment recommended by state education officials. Urbana Middle School and Hillcrest Elementary school are both fast-growing, and both are relying on portable classrooms to ensure enough seating and learning space for students.
Enrollment at Hillcrest Elementary in the city of Frederick will exceed 1,000 next school year. The News4 I-Team, during a recent tour of the school, watched students being seated on a theater stage during lunchtime, because of crowded conditions in the cafeteria.
The News4 I-Team review of state enrollment records, obtained via public records requests from state officials, shows nine elementary schools in Montgomery County have enrollments that are 40 percent above state recommendations. One of those schools, Matsunaga Elementary in Germantown, also has deployed portable classrooms to help manage the overflow.
The school’s principal said students are assigned specific hallways through which to walk at the end of the school day, to prevent bottlenecks.
Montgomery County Public Schools leaders are facing obstacles in their effort to construct new buildings and reduce overcrowding. A school official said a recently approved county budget includes about $214 million less than the Board of Education requested for major renovations and expansion. It will require the district to delay, by as much as two years, 24 school construction projects.
Loudoun County Public Schools are fast growing and increasingly under pressure to expand. Belmont Ridge Middle School and Pinebrook Elementary School are each operating more than 20 percent above state recommended capacity, the News4 I-Team learned. A district official said Pinebrook has “overflowed some (of its) students to neighboring schools” to avoid overcrowded conditions.
Bailey’s Elementary in Fairfax County is now Virginia’s most crowded, according to a school district official. Enrollment at the school is projected to exceed 1,400 in September. “We've had a huge population explosion in this neighborhood,” said Bailey’s Elementary principal Marie Lemmon.
To avert overcrowding, the district spent $20 million to purchase and remodel a nearby 5-story office tower. The building, along Route 7 in Falls Church, is being transformed into an annex of Bailey’s Elementary, into which the school’s 3rd, 4th and 5th graders will be moved in September.
State education officials said there are no safety concerns inside local schools with high enrollments, nor are there any violations of fire codes.
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