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Howard High School, located in Ellicott City, is the county's most populated school with nearly 2,000 students.
Howard High School, located in Ellicott City, is the county's most populated school with nearly 2,000 students. (Jess Nocera / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Every morning, Aasritha Maddisetty hurries to be first in line at her bus stop. She’s not trying to get a coveted seat on the school bus, just a seat in general.

“I’m one of the last stops so every morning I stress to get to the bus stop to be one of the first in line so I can maybe get a good seat,” the 15-year-old Elkridge resident said.

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A sophomore at Howard High School, Aasritha attends the most crowded school in the county. On Sept. 16, there were 1,913 students accounted for attendance — 493 seniors, 461 juniors, 475 sophomores and 484 freshmen. The building can hold 1,420 students, with the additional capacity being offset with 15 portable classrooms on the school’s grounds.

Howard’s capacity level is approximately 140%, while the target capacity utilization for the school system is to have schools between 90% and 110% capacity.

Class sizes, however, are not affected by school crowding. Despite Howard having a large volume of students, the school system maintains appropriate class sizes, according to a schools spokesman.

“With Howard students, it’s become the norm for the school to be so crowded,” Aasritha said.

Attending an overpopulated school means everything becomes a numbers game, from deciding which hallways to avoid at certain times because of student congestion and finding a seat for lunch, to securing a spot on sports teams or the school play and riding the bus.

On Aasritha’s bus, she said it’s common for three high school students to squeeze into a two-seater and for students to fall off into the middle of the aisles.

Students on her bus “tend to get a bit irritated, [and] can come across as rude but when you are crowded with so many people, with hot and sweaty students, students can be rude and not as friendly,” Aasritha said.

Some crowding relief, in all aspects of attending Howard, could be coming soon.

Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano presented a proposal in August to move nearly 7,400 students to combat school overcrowding, address inequities in the distribution of students affected by poverty and establish a road map for the county’s 13th high school, in Jessup.

His proposal looks to reassign 7,396 students, including 3,194 elementary, 1,351 middle and 2,851 high school students. Students would be moved ahead of the 2020-21 school year.

The school board is scheduled to vote on a final plan Nov. 21.

As the school board works at tackling redistricting for the high school level, its starting point is relieving Howard High’s crowding. Last month, school board members Chao Wu and Jen Mallo presented high school proposals, which look at moving Howard students to Long Reach and Oakland Mills high schools.

As of Monday, the school board has began working toward moving neighborhoods to different high schools but has not made any motions.

Located on Old Annapolis Road in Ellicott City, Howard High opened in 1952, making it the oldest school in the county, according to Principal Nick Novak. Students who live in Ellicott City, Elkridge, Columbia and Hanover currently attend the school.

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Tackling the crowding

Howard doesn’t have indoor pep rallies; assemblies are divided up by grade level due to the auditorium only having 900 seats; the bleachers during football games are crowded; and students walk outside in order to go from one indoor classroom to the next.

“We can’t make the hallways bigger so during class transitions, all doors are unlocked for students to be able to walk outside and then back into the school,” Novak said.

Students “do a nice job in dealing with the overcrowding situation,” Howard High School Principal Nick Novak said.
Students “do a nice job in dealing with the overcrowding situation,” Howard High School Principal Nick Novak said. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Students have six minutes to get from one class to the next, instead of five minutes like the county’s other 11 high schools. The two-minute transition time between lunch shifts was eliminated to add in the extra minute of class passing time.

Located outside is the “The Villa,” a nine-classroom portable unit that has two bathrooms, six more portables and a technology building.

It’s about a quarter-mile walk from The Villa to the end of the main school building, Novak said.

“You get your steps in at Howard,” he said.

When Howard’s Student Government Association President Megan Nkamwa holds forums and asks students what they want to change about the school, the reply is always about fixing Howard’s crowding.

Even things like parking at the school can be a trial.

“Parking passes [are] a fight,” Megan, 17, said.

There are around 288 student parking spots.

While parking is a senior privilege, the school does allow students who attend Howard Community College, have an off-campus internship or are in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, also known as JROTC, to have a parking pass.

A Columbia resident, Megan joined JROTC before freshman year so she could attend Howard and be with her friends instead of going to Long Reach High School.

In Howard’s parking lot, 15 to 20 spaces each day need to be empty for school visitors. At this time, the only solution to increasing parking would be to build a garage, Novak said, since there is no more land to expand the parking lots.

“Event parking is another animal,” Novak said. Many people have to resort to overflow parking measures by parking in neighborhoods or the Giant grocery store nearby.

Lunch is not broken up by grade level like other county schools, rather by classes. For example, the first lunch on Sept. 16 was for students who had finished up math and career and technology classes. The times that students have lunch change each day as a result of the school operating on “A” and “B” days for class schedule purposes.

Divided into four shifts, lunch is served between 10:15 a.m.and 12:15 p.m. each school day. In that two-hour window, when one shift ends and the next one begins, nearly 1,000 students are in the cafeteria, with about 450 to 500 students returning to class and the same number coming to eat lunch, Novak said.

Aasritha eats at a different time almost every day but she doesn’t mind.

Howard’s lunch shifts definitely help, said Aasritha, who doesn’t ever have a problem finding a seat.

“Once students pick a seat, they just kind of stay there,” she said.

There are 36 tables in the cafeteria that can seat 432 students and six tables in the atrium to hold an additional 72 students for a total of 504 seats available for any given lunch shift.

For students who buy lunch, there is the real hot lunch line as well as the express line, where items are a la carte.

Howard police school resource officer Phillip Lilly said reaching 2,000 students “can be a challenge.”

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“You want to make sure you know all of the kids’ faces, but it’s nearly impossible.”

While Lilly said he’s good at recognizing students, even in the third week of school he was still seeing new faces every day, which he called a safety concern.

“I’m definitely not reaching all of the students I need to be reaching,” he said.

Cuts in activities

Megan, a three-season athlete participating in cross-country, track and field, and lacrosse, said, “Cuts for sports [are] very extensive.”

Last season, there were about 50 students cut from track and field from all grade levels, the Howard senior said.

Howard High goalie Megan Nkamwa protects the ball after making a save during a March lacrosse game against Marriotts Ridge. The senior, a three-season athlete participating in cross-country, track and field, and lacrosse, said, “Cuts for sports [are] very extensive” because of the school's overcrowding.
Howard High goalie Megan Nkamwa protects the ball after making a save during a March lacrosse game against Marriotts Ridge. The senior, a three-season athlete participating in cross-country, track and field, and lacrosse, said, “Cuts for sports [are] very extensive” because of the school's overcrowding. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

In all Howard sports, “Upperclassman spots are not guaranteed … we have talent everywhere,” she said.

Besides having a freshman volleyball team, all other sports at Howard only have two teams: junior varsity and varsity.

“We don’t get extra positions because we are a larger school,” said Beth DeFrances, Howard High’s athletics and activities manager.

“We just have to make more cuts ... [meaning] every season is a brand new day for everyone, no guarantees you will make [a team] again.”

One year, a freshman made the varsity volleyball squad but then as a sophomore was placed on junior varsity “because of the level of competition,” DeFrances said.

While coaches would like to have more students participate, it is not feasible because of safety, security, transportation and equipment reasons.

“It’s difficult for kids who played sports their entire lives to not make a team,” DeFrances said.

The school promotes other ways for students to participate in activities, such as clubs, community service, honors society and student government.

However, even those opportunities fill up, resulting in students being turned away, DeFrances said.

For example, Howard’s Allied Sports program — where general education and special education students play sports together — has had to general education “buddies” before, she said.

Aasritha enjoys taking English and theater classes at Howard. She is also a member of the Student Government Association as the treasurer for the Class of 2022; a Future Business Leaders of America member; and is involved in this fall’s school play, “12 Angry Jurors.”

Attending Howard has made it “a lot harder to make after-school activities” that require tryouts, such as the school play, she said.

She didn’t get a spot in either the fall play or spring musical during her freshman year, with most roles going to upperclassman.

In the latest three school productions, from fall 2018 to now, freshmen have been cast in each show, according to Novak.

“I understand the seniors are more deserving. If there were less people [in school], there would be less tryouts so then the people who were really interested would get a spot,” Aasritha said.

Novak credits students for keeping the school as orderly as possible despite the population.

“They do a nice job in dealing with the overcrowding situation.”

Aasritha said she goes back and forth with the current redistricting process.

“I guess I would rather deal with overcrowding than to lose friends,” she said.

Even though Megan is graduating in May, she is happy to see redistricting happening.

“The fact that the conversation is happening is a good thing. Our school is crowded.”

Located on Old Annapolis Road in Ellicott City, Howard High School opened in 1952, making it the oldest school in the county, according to Principal Nick Novak.
Located on Old Annapolis Road in Ellicott City, Howard High School opened in 1952, making it the oldest school in the county, according to Principal Nick Novak. (Jess Nocera / Baltimore Sun Media Group)
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