About two miles past where Route 32 narrows to one lane in western Howard County, Ten Oaks Road cuts through a stretch of woods, past a cornfield and through a scattering of rural homes before widening at the entrance to Dayton Oaks Elementary, in Dayton.
The school, built in 2006, is by far the largest building along this stretch of Ten Oaks, a commanding facility that has room for 788 students.
But Tuesday, Aug. 30, the first day of school in Howard County, classrooms in the building sat empty.
Enrollment for this year was estimated at 446 students — just 56.6 percent of capacity, making it the least-crowded school in Howard County.
"We have a huge school, but we have a very close-knit community," said Kelly Baker, one of three fourth-grade teachers in the school. "You get to know everybody."
"We'll know all of them by the end of the week," said Gwyn Calanni, another teacher, of the school's 87 fourth-graders. "I already know my 29!"
Across the county at Veterans Elementary, built in 2007 with the same design as Dayton Oaks, a very different picture emerged.
Just off Montgomery Road, in Ellicott City, Veterans sits behind a YMCA, across the street from Long Gate Shopping Center and surrounded by neighborhoods of single-family homes, townhouses and apartment complexes.
Also built for 788 students, the school's enrollment numbers for this year were estimated at 982 students, or 124.6 percent of capacity.
Rather than having empty classrooms inside, the school has six portable classrooms outside, where two fourth-grade classes, two fifth-grade classes and two gifted-and-talented classes are taught every day.
Dayton Oaks and Veterans, the Howard County school system's two newest schools, exemplify a dramatic county trend of western elementary schools being under capacity and eastern elementary schools being over capacity.
It's an issue of mismatched resources, county officials said, one they intend to fix through redistricting in coming years.
But until then, students, parents, teachers and individual principals, such as Kimberlyn Pratesi at Dayton Oaks and Bob Bruce at Veterans, must contend with the associated challenges.
'Onslaught of children'
According to Bruce, staffing and curriculum needs and student-to-teacher ratios are never a problem with overcrowding.
"The county does a great job with providing us with resources for making sure that students have what they need," he said, noting Veterans has almost 160 staff members.
But the sheer number of students can pose logistical problems.
"It's like an onslaught of children going into the doors in the morning, because there are so many of them," said Andrea Solan, the school's PTA president. "It's really a logistical thing that I'm concerned about rather than any educational issues."
Social events are more difficult. There are long lines for food at the annual school picnic, and year-to-year, kids are split up among classes that rarely interact, said Solan, who has three children at the school.
"I hear from some families that they don't like the fact that there are so many classes in each grade that their kids may have a year where they don't know anyone. They may have a friend who they never see," Solan said.