Eight Howard County middle schools are able to fit more students than previously thought, according to a new study approved by the Board of Education last week.
The Howard County Public School System recently commissioned Gilbert Architects to review middle school capacity numbers — a follow-up to a massive assessment in 2008 — and the firm determined populations at some of the schools could be increased by more than 100 students.
Manager of School Planning Joel Gallihue said the study means the system has a fair and consistent way of looking at the schools for long-term planning, such as the upcoming middle school redistricting process.
"We found we had understated capacity in several schools, and now we can be clear in stating capacity, whether it be high or low," he said. "This is a uniform way of looking at our schools, and it's more fair to older schools that don't meet educational specifications."
Programmatic changes at the middle schools — namely a shift in philosophy regarding special education — and a standard rule that a middle school classroom should be 660 square feet, led to the increased numbers, Gallihue said. Since older schools weren't built to modern specifications, many included separate classrooms for special education classes, which wouldn't count as a teaching station. But now with special needs students included in mainstream classrooms, a school might have more space than previously assumed, Gallihue said.
Eight middle schools saw their capacity increase through the study. Burleigh Manor and Elkridge Landing saw their capacity go from 662 students to 779 students. Mount View and Patuxent Valley went from a capacity of 662 students to 798 students and 760 students, respectively. Mayfield Woods went from a capacity of 682 students to 798 students, and Dunloggin middle went from a capacity of 526 students to 565 students. Hammond and Lake Elkhorn went from a capacity of 584 students to capacities of 604 and 643, respectively.
By a vote of 5-1, with two abstentions, the board approved the $25,112 capacity study from Gilbert Architects at its meeting Sept. 26. Board member Cindy Vaillancourt voted against the new capacity numbers, and Janet Siddiqui and Sandra French abstained from the vote.
Gilbert Architects Vice President Danielle Hoffer said that to determine middle school capacity, central office staff and Gilbert staff met via teleconference with every middle school principal. They reviewed floor plans and teaching stations, including classrooms and gymnasiums, at each school. The staffing ratio at the school, multiplied by the number of teaching stations, multiplied by a 95 percent efficiency rate, indicated the new capacity for each school.
Pullout programs like special education, which still may require smaller rooms rather than whole classrooms, are not counted toward capacity numbers, Hoffer said, nor are portable classrooms outside a school building.
"I have a hard time justifying that there is extra program space when the programs are being finagled to work — the principals have bent over backward to figure out what to do with an overabundance of students and they're being rewarded for that by being reclassified so they can get even more students in without being overcapacity," Vaillancourt said. "Is the argument that we're going to push more kids into these buildings until they finally crumble?"
Four middle schools — none of which have been recently renovated — saw their capacity lowered. Clarksville and Patapsco went from a capacity of 662 students to 643 students. Glenwood went from a capacity of 584 students to 545. Wilde Lake went from a capacity of 506 students to 467 students. Wilde Lake, which is due for a 156-seat addition in April 2015, currently has 548 students.
French said she would have preferred a work session on the new capacity numbers and more discussion on each of the schools' capacities and needs.
"Each school deserves its own attention and discussion," she said, expressing concerns that schools built to the same specifications now have varying capacity numbers.
Siddiqui agreed a work session would have been preferable.
"We use these numbers for redistricting, renovations, additions, so we should really sit down and look at each school, the population and programs," Siddiqui said. "Not every school has the same needs as another."
Gallihue said the discussions with principals, while conducted remotely, were thorough. Siddiqui said it "would be nice to hear those conversations in terms of how they're utilizing the building and learn from them as we go forward and plan new buildings."
Some members of the public aren't in favor of the increased capacity numbers at schools in the southeastern region of the county, like Elkridge Landing, Mayfield Woods and Patuxent Valley — schools that will feed into the new middle school opening next year in Hanover. President of the Greater Elkridge Community Association Doug Kornreich spoke at the board meeting Sept. 12 and asked the board to vote no on the changes. Kornreich and his wife, Leslie, a former candidate for the board, were the only two people to speak against the new numbers at a public forum earlier in September. No public hearing was held on the new capacities.
"(Staff members) know that building another middle school to handle the coming growth in the Route 1 corridor will be necessary," Dough Kornreich said. "However, rather than actually planning for it, the staff has proposed that you take the easy way out by cramming these schools to the rafters and pretending that there is room in these buildings. This is not the way a world-class school system acts, sacrificing the education of its students for administrative convenience."
For the complete Gilbert Architects report, visit hcpss.org/schoolplanning and click on "2012-13 MS Capacity Update"