The crush of students in the hallways of Clarksville Middle School doesn't prevent Emily Cardy from getting to class on time: She just forces her way right through it.
"It's like a big mosh pit," said the 13-year-old eighth-grader, referring to the dance area in front of a rock concert stage. "Everyone is just pushing and shoving."
As the academic year resumes, the Howard County schools' problems with crowding have returned -- and at many schools they appear to be worsening.
Enrollment is climbing faster than schools can be built, and almost every elementary, middle and high school in Howard is suffering the effects -- from crowded hallways and packed lunchrooms to large classes and too few materials.
Portable classrooms are common sights outside even such recently built schools as Pointers Run Elementary School, across the street from Clarksville Middle near Columbia's River Hill village. Howard High School -- the county's largest school with more than 1,700 students -- has 11 portable classrooms.
Crowding likely will worsen this week.
Although school officials say that their first-week head count put student enrollment at 37,277 -- 567 below projections -- they fear that hundreds more students who didn't realize that Howard schools opened before Labor Day will register today and tomorrow.
"I'm anticipating a substantial increase when we count again this next week," said Maurice Kalin, associate superintendent for planning and support services.
Nevertheless, the effects of crowding already can be seen throughout Howard's schools.
With about 85 more students than its designed capacity, Clarksville Middle offers a fairly typical portrait of the inconveniences of crowding. "It doesn't really affect the quality of their education, but it's a nuisance," said Principal Frank Scrivener.
Teachers worry that their classes are too large, preventing them from offering as much individual attention as they would like.
"I find that I'm most effective with class sizes of around 23 to 25 students, but almost all of my classes are larger than that," said English teacher Annette Kuperman. "I want to prepare the kids for the [Maryland School Performance Assessment Program] by encouraging them to write as much as possible, but it takes a really long time to grade essays from 130 students."
Teachers say they've had to adapt their teaching styles, often relying more on group activities in which students get feedback from their peers. "The benefit is that they become independent thinkers when they help their peers," said English teacher Kathryn McKinley.
A handful of teachers don't even have their own classrooms, pushing carts full of materials through the school's hallways as they move from room to room throughout the school day.
In the packed hallways, teachers stand outside their classrooms when students pass to classes to minimize conflicts among students, and lockers only are permitted to be opened during specific, less crowded times.
"Everyone is just so close together," said eighth-grader Nalini Periasamy, 13. "When you have your locker open and the person next to you opens their locker, they bump you and hit your head.
"They don't mean it," she said. "It's just too crowded."
Lunch shifts are just as problematic, students say, with pupils squeezing around all available tables and spending much of the time in long lunch lines.
"As soon as I get my lunch, it's time to eat dessert and go outside," complained eighth-grader Tracey Peoples, 13. "But at least no one has to stand up and eat."
That's better than in many of the county's high schools, where students routinely are forced to sit in hallways because the lunchrooms are full.
"It's just packed," said Oakland Mills High School junior Alix Allen, 15.
At Centennial High School, five of its seven portable classrooms were transferred this year to more crowded schools -- leaving Centennial's regular classrooms more crowded. "It's not ideal, but we'll make it work," said Principal Edgar Markley.
Elementary schools tend to feel the physical impact of crowding less than middle and high schools. Younger students usually don't roam through the halls between classes, and they're smaller.
But small class sizes tend to be a more important educational issue at the elementary-school level, and elementary school principals already are laying claim to the spare teachers who will be assigned to schools that have unexpectedly high enrollment increases.
At Bollman Bridge Elementary School, 75 additional students have registered since the close of school in June -- about 40 more than projected.
"Our class sizes are a little high now, but if a couple more students register next week, I think we can get another teacher," said Bollman Bridge Principal Glenn Heisey.
With student enrollment expected to increase by almost a third to 47,000 pupils by 2004, the crowding issue is not expected to ease anytime soon.
But school officials hope to spend almost $275 million by then, building at least a dozen new schools and renovating countless others -- if they can resolve their mounting disputes with top county officials over how much of the county's budget the schools can claim.