While some Anne Arundel County elementary students headed back to class in overcrowded buildings, school officials hope that won't be the case for long.
Anne Arundel County Public Schools officials said this week that groundbreaking was expected in October for the new Monarch Global Academy Public Contract School on 8.4 acres off Brock Bridge Road in Laurel — a groundbreaking that was delayed a year by difficulties between the nonprofit Children's Guild Institute and developer Palm Cos.
"The school is progressing really well," said Pat Crain, Anne Arundel's senior manager of charter schools. "We're still on target for groundbreaking."
The school, which would open in 2014, will offer kindergarten through eighth grade, with room for 780 students. At the elementary level, Monarch will be an International Baccalaureate school. At the middle school level, the focus will be on world language and information technology, Crain said.
Monarch Academy, which has another Anne Arundel location in Glen Burnie and another opening at a yet-to-be-determined location in the county in 2015, was supposed to open its Laurel location in 2013. A contract between Monarch and the school system was signed in June 2012, but a month later an amendment was added to the contract specifying that if the school wasn't developed by August 2013, Monarch and the schools would work together to find another solution.
Director of Alternative Education Kathy Lane said at the time the amendment was added it looked like "the wheels were starting to fall off" the project and Palm Cos. was having difficulty securing money from its lenders for the $16.5 million school.
Now, Crain said, Palm Cos., which was having difficulty securing funding and permits for the school, is selling the property to the Children's Guild — a deal that should be settled "in the next few weeks," and the guild will move forward with building the school.
The school system has worked on opening a contract school in the Laurel area of the county since "about 2008," Crain said, partly to alleviate the overcrowding in the region's three elementary schools: Brock Bridge, Maryland City and Jessup. Of those schools, Brock Bridge and Maryland City specifically serve Laurel residents.
And over the years, those schools have been getting more and more crowded.
"The only part of the county that was available for development was the west," said Alex Szachnowicz, the school system's chief operating officer. "The south quadrant of the county is agricultural; development along the eastern quadrant was essentially curtailed to preserve the Chesapeake Bay; and the northern quadrant was already fully developed. Headed west, out to Laurel, that was the only area the county had for development."
"What used to be lightly populated, lightly developed, in the span of a very short time — about 12 years — mushroomed," he said. "Our schools and facilities out there were not positioned at that time to accept all the growth. We have the schools we need for the amount of residents we had 12-15 years ago."
According to the 2013 Educational Facilities Master Plan, created by the school system's planning office, the areas surrounding both Maryland City and Brock Bridge elementary schools are now closed to development until the capacity issues are resolved — a determination based on enrollment figures from last year and projected enrollment for 2014. As of last year, Maryland City had 433 enrolled students in a facility built for 392 students. At Brock Bridge, 724 students last year were in a building designed to hold 609.
"We've got three options (when schools become overcrowded)," said Board of Education member Stacy Korbelak, who represents District 21 and the western region. "You can try to redistrict if you have schools in the area that have space. You can request funding from the state and county to construct a new school or expand existing ones. Or you can look for contract options."
The western region of the county has undergone two redistrictings in the past few years, Szachnowicz said, and in 2007 that included shifting students from Brock Bridge to Maryland City. Currently, Brock Bridge is at about 116 percent capacity; Maryland City is at 105 percent.
A new school that can hold 780 students — particularly a school with a catchment area of only Jessup, Maryland City and Brock Bridge — will be a great relief for the area, Crain said.
"If you're pulling 780 students from those three schools, that's a big, significant chunk of students from each," he said. "We feel confident that will alleviate the overcrowding for quite some time."
An eye toward relieving overcrowding led the system to pursue a contract school rather than a charter school in Laurel, Crain said. With a charter school, enrollment would be open to any student in Anne Arundel County. With a contract school, seats are only open to students who would otherwise attend Jessup, Brock Bridge or Maryland City.
"So, we limit the catchment area to those three schools, and by doing that we lower the capacity issues in the schools and provide a brand new school for the families that are in need of one," Crain said. Students would apply by lottery.
In the meantime, there are capital projects in the pipeline that could further relieve any future overcrowding at the Laurel-area schools. Maryland City is set to have a new gymnasium next spring, and Brock Bridge is on schedule for a "life cycle renovation," with funds projected to be included in budgets starting in fiscal year 2017. Brock Bridge is 43 years old, and Szachnowicz said the system tries to renovate buildings every 40 years. The renovations would expand the school to hold 138 more students.
"(Brock Bridge) needs to be expanded to house the youngsters there and it needs to be comprehensively renovated to make it more modern," Szachnowicz said.