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.
Solan further expressed her thoughts, and those of other parents she spoke with, in an email.
"While safety and logistics are certainly two of my biggest concerns with the overcrowding, my feedback from other families shows a level of frustration that we have a beautiful new building that cannot be used to its full potential," she wrote. "This year is the first year where full-time classes have had to move out into portables (in the past it was specials like music or G/T), and some parents are frustrated that their children will spend almost their entire day in a portable right next to fully equipped, new classrooms."
The luxury of space
Pratesi agreed with Bruce that, regardless of student population, the county's schools operate similarly, at least from an educational standpoint.
"The dynamic of what happens during the school day really is consistent regardless of what your population is, because you may have less staffing, but it doesn't impact the curriculum the children will be exposed to," she said.
Still, she said, having fewer students in a massive building comes with perks.
One extra classroom has been set up as a computer lab for students, so the school's designated lab is always available to teachers. Another classroom is set aside as a resource room for student interventions. Larger spaces are always available for multiple classes in the same grade to join together for special events.
"We love the extra space," Baker said. "It gives us a sense of community to get together."
Dayton Oaks PTA President Julie Krein said parents are also happy for the space, but at times feel spoiled.
"It's nice for their own kids, but they would like to see things more balanced," Krein said, noting wasted space is also wasted tax money.
Pratesi said the school system just relocated its Regional Early Childhood Center to Dayton Oaks, and various meetings and countywide training sessions have been held at the school, to utilize the extra space.
In addition, this year was the first year that the school didn't lose a teacher because of dropping numbers. Instead, it gained two teachers, Pratesi said. At 56.6 percent of capacity, the school is actually slightly up from 2009, when it was at 55.6 percent.
Pratesi said she expects the economy is to blame for low enrollment numbers in recent years, but hopes that is turning around.
Until then, she'll keep working with the school system to find ways to take advantage of all the extra space, she said, and would welcome redistricted kids from anywhere in the county.
"The mission will always stay the same," she said.