Harford elementary school classes have too many pupils, officials say


The school board is talking about it. Parents are talking about it. Even the County Council is talking about it.

They are discussing the number of packed classrooms in the Harford County school system.

According to recent enrollment figures, 21 of 31 county elementary schools have at least one -- and some as many as 15 -- classrooms above capacity.

"We're trying to build a solid [educational] foundation in the early years. It's difficult with 28 and 29 children in a classroom," school board member George D. Lisby said recently.

"My son is with 27 other children," said Sophia Hayes, whose child attends first grade at Abingdon Elementary School. "I'm sure it means he will achieve less."

School policy calls for 20 students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes, 23 students in first and second grades, 25 in grades three through five, and 30 in middle and high school classes.

"There are a number of classrooms over 30. It's not acceptable," said County Council member Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C. She added that the topic has been brought up by concerned citizens at recent council meetings.

Classroom numbers are not available for the county's eight middle and nine high schools.

"We are in the process of gathering the information. It is due in November," said schools spokesman Donald R. Morrison.

He said middle and high school class sizes often change because students change courses at the beginning of the school year.

"We know we have circumstances in some classrooms which are less than desirable," School Superintendent Ray R. Keech said. "We have made a sincere effort by wrenching the budget every way we could to lower class size."

At a School Board session last Monday, Mr. Lisby saw a possible remedy to the situation when he and other board members learned about a $567,000 fund equity surplus of undesignated money.

"Could we use it for more teachers?" he asked.

Dr. Keech promised to consider Mr. Lisby's suggestion and make a recommendation on it to the School Board at its Nov. 14 meeting. But using the surplus would leave the school system without a contingency fund, he said.

Mr. Lisby acknowledged it probably would not be a good idea to use the whole surplus to hire more teachers. "There could be some emergency. . . . We would not have to use all of it," he said, adding, "I'd say, 'Hallelujah,' " if the county did get more teachers.

There are about 2,300 teachers in the county's schools.

If the entire $567,000 were earmarked for more teachers, the county could hire about 16 additional educators, based on $25,000 in salary and $10,000 in benefits for a first-year teacher.

Depending on Dr. Keech's recommendation, using the surplus to hire teachers would have to be approved by the County Council because the money would be transferred from one fund to another, Mr. Morrison said.

This year, the school system hired 106 new classroom teachers, 71 of them to maintain class sizes, Mr. Morrison said. The other 35 teachers were distributed throughout the school system to reduce class sizes.

However, the average class size for grades one through five has improved. It was 24 students per class last year, compared with 23.3 students this year.

Still, new and old schools are feeling the pinch of cramped classrooms.

Church Creek Elementary School in Belcamp, which opened in September, already has seven crowded rooms.

There are about 28 students in each of the four second-grade classes and 30 in each of the three fourth-grade classes.

The school, located off Route 543, is in a growth corridor.

Principal Barbara J. Douglas takes the numbers in stride. It's a matter of "creative planning," she said.

"We have an outstanding staff. They are knowledgeable and flexible to handle this," the principal said.

The school also relies on parents and community volunteers to help teachers.

And it's not unusual to find Mrs. Douglas and Assistant Principal Duane E. Wallace rolling up their shirtsleeves.

"I, myself, as a teacher first, last and always, and my assistant principal work in the classrooms also," she said.

Other burgeoning areas are experiencing spillovers, too. Forest Hill Elementary has 27 students in each of its three third-grade classrooms and in its three fourth-grade classes.

Fountain Green Elementary has 27 students in four second-grade classes.

On the other side of the county, Magnolia Elementary has 27 students each in its three fourth-grade classes.

"Intellectually, rationally, I can understand it. We moved to a boom area," said Mrs. Hayes of Abingdon. But she still wonders, "When the numbers get high enough, why can't the school make arrangements for an extra teacher?"

"It comes down to how best to apply our resources," Mr. Morrison responded. "Nobody likes to see class sizes up."

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