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Overcrowding a growing problem for Catonsville elementary schools

Tom Quirk

Smelly bathrooms. More than three hours of lunch periods in the cafeteria. Makeshift classrooms in the hallway.

That's life for students, teachers and staff at Hillcrest Elementary School.

The school at 1500 Frederick Road, which opened in 1968, is designed for 666 students.

As of Feb. 13, the school had 841 students currently enrolled.

Unfortunately, Hillcrest is not the only area elementary school experiencing overcrowding. Westchester Elementary School and Catonsville Elementary School are both also well over capacity.

According to the Baltimore County Public Schools website, Westchester Elementary is 85 students over capacity with 584 students enrolled in the school designed to house 499.

Catonsville Elementary School is 31 students over capacity with 436 students enrolled in a school designed for 405, according to the school system website.

Cathy Allie, Baltimore County assistant superintendent for elementary schools in the zone that includes Catonsville, said there are long-term plans for "additional seats" in the area. That could mean a new school or additions to an existing school or simply more portable classrooms.

In the meantime, she is looking for both short and long-term solutions for Hillcrest, and the other Catonsville area elementary schools that are also overcrowded.

Combined, more than 1,800 students attend the three elementary schools in the Catonsville area that are operating at an overall 20 percent over capacity.

"Unfortunately, in the Catonsville area, we have a lot of overcrowding," Allie said.

Allie said she is looking for both short and long-term solutions for Hillcrest, and the other Catonsville area elementary schools that are also overcrowded.

Those solutions range from cutting programs to free up space to moving pre-K students to the Bloomsbury Community Center.

She noted that monitoring arrival and dismissal more closely to make sure students who should be riding a bus aren't being driven by their parents would also help the situation.

"If your kid is supposed to be riding a bus, they need to be riding the bus," Allie said.

"It does effect the whole efficiency or coming in and coming out," she added, referring to the extra number of vehicles on the already crowded parking lot.

Allie said the county has already provided four portable classrooms and an additional assistant principal to try and ease the difficulties at Hillcrest.

"We tend to continue to sort of monitor what would be the best thing to help that school out," Allie said.

Charles Herndon, a spokesman for Baltimore County Public Schools, said it's difficult to decide if adding a new school to an area is the best solution to overcrowding.

"Building a new school is obviously one of those, but we have to weigh that against the resources that are available out there and there have not been traditionally a lot of those out there," Herndon said.

Herndon also said that because there are so many variables that affect overcrowding, it's hard to determine when more portable classrooms are the answer and when building a new school is necessary.

"We're a growing county. We have been for a quite a number of years," Herndon said. "And property is not always available and not easy to come by."

No room to grow

Mike Bowler is a member of the Baltimore County School Board and a Catonsville resident whose grandson previously attended Hillcrest.

Bowler said the reasons for Hillcrest's troubles stem from its success.

"It's overcrowded because it's an extremely successful school," Bowler said. "In a sense it's a victim of its own success."

That success includes 95-plus percent scores in both the math and reading tests in the annual Maryland School Assessments for the third, fourth and fifth grades at Hillcrest in 2011 and 2012. The score is the highest attainable on the mandatory tests, which are taken every spring. Scores are nearly that high overall for the third-, fourth and fifth-graders at Catonsville and Westchester elementaries as well.

Because the area's schools have such good reputations for test scores and for learning experience, people are moving to Catonsville specifically for the educational opportunities. That creates population surges that are difficult to predict by the county.

"You can count the kids that are coming up (from lower grades), but you can't count the kids who are going to transfer," Bowler said.

In the 17 years that Bowler has lived in Catonsville, he said he's seen an increase from four to 13 children a day at the school bus stop near his house.

"Success is nice," Bowler said. "But it's hard to keep it up when you're bursting at the seams. And there's only so much you can do."

For Hillcrest Principal Terry McVey, the lack of space is the biggest, and fastest growing, problem at the school.

"We're using every possible area that we can locate for storage, for instructing students," McVey said. "We have a lot of areas set up in the hallways."

McVey said that she is asking the county to possibly provide more portable classrooms, which residents know as "trailers," for the 2013-2014 school year.

But she cautioned that would only provide a temporary solution.

"That would get us by next year and maybe the following year, but nothing's definite in terms of staffing, planning or budgets for next year," McVey said.

"Overcrowding has been an issue at Hillcrest for a while," said Erica Mah, who has a daughter in first grade and a son in second grade at Hillcrest. "This is not a new issue."

Mah is one of the parents on a four-person subcommittee looking for answers to the school's overcrowding problem.

Mah said that the school has been dealing with overcrowding for a number of years and, if enrollment keeps growing, the problems could become worse.

Mah said one of the issues as the school becomes more crowded is the building's plumbing system becoming overwhelmed.

She said the first-grade boys bathroom is "constantly plugged up. It's smelly. It's dirty."

"Our facilities can't handle the overcrowding as some of the other schools can," Mah said.

Mah also said that the school has lunch periods over two hours throughout the school day. She fears what will happen should the school become more crowded.

"Kids are having lunch from 10:45 (a.m.) to 1:30 (p.m.)," Mah said. "Next year, when you have another group of kids, that's probably going to be even earlier and even later."

Mah said teachers are having to become more creative to maintain learning standards for students.

"Our staff and administration is incredible and they bend over backwards and do everything they possibly can to make sure our kids are still doing everything they possibly need," Mah said.

However, Mah said that short term solutions such adding more portable classrooms or more teachers are becoming less of an option as the years go by.

"If we got more teachers, we wouldn't know where to put them," she said. "Getting trailers is something we definitely have to do in the short terms. It is not a long term goal."

First District Councilman Tom Quirk has a personal interest in the overcrowding at Hillcrest. His daughter is a student at the school and his son, now at Catonsville Middle School, previously attended.

"I'm very intimately familiar with the overcrowding problems there," Quirk said.

He said he is doing everything he can, as a parent and an elected official, to get Hillcrest, and Catonsville's other overcrowded elementary schools, help.

"I couldn't agree more with the parents' concerns," he said. "I'm doing everything I can to advocate for them."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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