Michelle Berry moved to Howard County for the school system’s reputation, even though it would be years before her daughter was enrolled in elementary school.
Now, her youngest of three children is a junior at Centennial High School, one of the most crowded of the county’s 12 high schools.
Berry, the president of the Centennial High School Parent Teacher Student Association, said overcrowding has been a huge issue.
“It’s just getting worse and worse every year,” Berry said, noting that she is speaking on her behalf, not for the PTSA of the Ellicott City school. “And it’s really bad this year.”
Eight options to alleviate crowding in five high schools are before the school board. A public hearing to review the options — including temporary or permanent assignments of ninth-graders to under-populated high schools to opening a separate academy for freshman classes — is at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The most crowded of Howard’s high schools are Centennial, Hammond, Howard, Long Reach and Mt. Hebron, according to Jennifer Bubenko, planning specialist for the school system.
There are limits to school building capacities, according to school board policy. Defined as a target utilization, the policy limits a school building capacity to be between 90 percent and 110 percent occupancy. As of 2017, 35 schools were outside the target utilization.
The key concerns PTSA’s have with options for relief are equity, safety and potential disruption to the learning experience, according to Brent Loveless, president of the Parent Teacher Association Council of Howard County.
The council is deferring an official position on the options to give an opportunity for the individual school associations to advocate on the local level, Loveless said.
Centennial’s association also has not taken a position on options, Berry said.
“While we got nine portables [temporary classrooms] that helps … but does nothing for you basic elements which is your gym, your auditorium and your lunchroom,” Berry said. “[There’s] no longer a winter pep rally becauseyou can’t fit everyone in the gym.”
An option to open a ninth-grade academy at the Faulkner Ridge Center in Columbia “makes no sense” to Berry. The academy would first place Howard High School freshman at the center but could be expanded as a countywide program.
“Makes no sense to me to spend tax dollars to update a facility that isn’t meant to be a school,” Berry said. “There is no discussion of sports and activities and band or how anything they [students] do with ninth grade factors in.”
Caroline Bodziak, a parent of three students at Ellicott City’s Mt. Hebron High School, is president of the school’s parent-teacher association. The association will vote on its position Tuesday and will submit written testimony to the school board.
The crowding at Mt. Hebron, which originally was built as a middle school, has yet to affect the quality of education the students are receiving, according to Bodziak, speaking on her behalf and not in her role with the PTSA. The high school has four portable classrooms on its campus to alleviate crowding, according to school data.
“Ideally I would like to see a overcrowding solution impact as few families as necessary,” Bodziak said.
If students are relocated to different high schools, as some options suggest, Bodziak would stress the importance of “once a child starts at a high school, they should be allowed to finish there.”
“In Howard County there is so much emphasis on college readiness, academies, athletics and extracurricular [activities that] can all be negatively impacted with a force move during the high school years,” Bodziak said.
Padma Sivasailam, president of Long Reach association and speaking on her own behalf, also stressed that high school students should begin and end at the same school.
“If you are moving the students you have to keep them in whatever school you’re moving them to for the four years,” Sivasailam said. “I think high school is where they form their affiliation to that school … it’s nothing like middle school or elementary school, high school is their life.”
Sivasailam, who has two children at Long Reach, said the association will discuss the options at its Sept. 17 meeting. The Columbia high school has four portable classrooms.
The JumpStart program, another of the eight proposed options, that provides the opportunity for high school students to earn an associate’s degree as they graduate from high school, has helped alleviate crowding at Long Reach, Sivasailam said. JumpStart students attend River Hill, in Clarksville, or Columbia’s Oakland Mills high school before their senior year to take selected classes and then their final year attend Howard Community College.
The Howard and Hammond high school association presidents did not return requests for comment. Howard has 15 temporary classrooms and Hammond has four.
As the overcrowding options discussion progresses, the county council may take positions but “for now are leaving all options open as details become available,” Loveless said.
“This is fast-moving, complicated and detailed initiative and we are looking at all options to make sure we have the best interest of students in mind,” Loveless said. “This does affect all of us, we are one school system.”