Schools struggle to keep up in booming Calvert County

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PRINCE FREDERICK -- Chase Windsor goes out for lunch every day at Calvert High School, but it isn't a teen-age protest against cafeteria food.

Rain or shine, the ninth-grader and his buddies dine al fresco in the school's courtyard, their meal trays balanced on their laps, because there aren't enough seats for everyone in the lunchroom.

Such are the growing pains in Calvert County, where thousands of homes have sprouted in former tobacco fields tucked between the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River.

This once-rural region in Southern Maryland is rapidly becoming a Washington-area bedroom community, and the county's pride -- its school system -- is bursting at the seams.

"It's like everybody discovered Calvert County," says James R. Hook, the superintendent of schools. "They've moved [here] for three basic reasons: good schools, low taxes and quality of life."

All three are showing signs of strain under burgeoning development.

The smallest county in the state in area, Calvert is the fastest growing. Its population has more than doubled since 1980, to 75,000.

School enrollment also has mushroomed, prompting a proliferation of portable classrooms on campuses throughout the county and triggering rapid-fire school construction.

Nine schools have been built in the past decade, a breakneck pace that has taxed the abilities of the county to staff and furnish them."We've had contractors going out one end of the building and kids coming in the other," says Lloyd Robertson, assistant to the superintendent, who supervises planning for new schools.

But with 800 new homes approved annually for much of the past decade, students are showing up for classes in some parts of the county faster than schools can be built for them.

Dowell Elementary, the county's newest school, near booming Solomons, opened in August with 728 pupils, 33 more than its state-rated capacity. Extra classrooms were carved out by converting "supplemental" rooms designed to be computer and science labs.

With 25 more children expected in the fall, a double-wide trailer will be trucked in to handle the overflow."The place has so many kids, they don't get the playground time they did at their former school," says Linda Morin, whose 7-year-old daughter Michelle is a second-grader at Dowell.

Less than a mile north, contractors are racing to finish building Mill Creek Middle School, but it probably won't be ready when classes start at the end of August.

Its students will double up at a neighboring school, attending half-day sessions there for a month until they can move into their new home.

Crunch at high schools

The real space crunch is in the county's three high schools. They have about 500 more students than their combined capacity of 3,820.

Calvert High has a village of 14 portable classrooms on its 40-acre campus just north of Prince Frederick. It has 210 more students than the 1,240 it was meant to hold when it was built in 1965.

Based on current projections, it could be 50 percent over capacity by 2004, when the opening of a fourth high school is planned if county residents and officials can agree soon on where it should be constructed.

To ease gridlock in hallways too narrow for the current enrollment, Calvert High's administrators have imposed one-way foot traffic and limited the times when students can go to their lockers.

Even so, students had to be given five minutes -- an extension from two minutes -- to get from class to class."You can barely walk in the hallways without being stopped," says 14-year-old Chase Windsor."You have to take baby steps," agrees fellow ninth-grader Mark Wilkerson.

In another concession to crowding, ninth- and 10th-graders must share half-sized lockers. Freshman Lisa Banks carefully extracts "Wuthering Heights" from hers, jammed so full of books that there is no room for jackets or almost anything else."A lot of stuff I end up hanging onto," the 15-year-old says, inserting the paperback classic into a sports bag on her shoulder.

Classrooms are crowded, too, with as many as 35 students in some.

"It's harder to learn," says sophomore Sheena Moan. "You have to sit up front if you want to get all your notes."

Problems not major

Teachers and principals say crowding complicates their work but hasn't caused major problems."It's harder to deliver the lesson, and you're more on guard," says Calvert High Principal Gene Bridgett.

He and others say the students take it in stride, for the most part."It is tight," says Janie Hanko, president of the Calvert High PTA, whose daughter is a junior. "But it's still a fabulous school. I don't see where it's affecting them."

The schools are still a draw for families from neighboring Charles and Prince George's counties. Calvert's standardized test scores and teacher salaries are among the best in Maryland.

But some worry that the educational system is losing ground under the onslaught of growth. The county has the highest student-teacher ratios in the state."The commitment has always been there, but the frustration grows as class sizes get larger," says Carole Miller, head of the county's teachers union and a longtime teacher at Calvert Elementary."There's more [to education] than a desk and a chair."

No 5% raise this year

Teachers are especially frustrated because school officials have refused to put up the local matching funds needed to get them a 5 percent pay raise this year as part of a statewide program pushed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Hook says the $1 million that would be needed to boost teacher salaries is being used to lower class sizes. But such disputes highlight the unmet fiscal needs of the school system, where a disproportionate share of the budget is devoted to staffing and equipping new schools rather than to improving instruction.

"We've gotten more money from the county commissioners in the last three years than we've gotten in the previous 10, and still it's hard to keep your head above water," Hook says.

Linda Kelley, president of the five-member Board of County Commissioners, says the superintendent's words are meant to extract more money for the school system budget. The commissioners did approve a $4.8 million increase for the coming year.

With funding support from the county and state, more teachers have been hired to reduce most elementary classes to no more than 20 pupils, and high school classes are targeted next for shrinking.

MacArthur Jones, president of the elected school board, worries that the system's needs might soon outstrip the county's ability to pay. "It's just a matter of time," says the retired principal and teacher, noting that the county lacks major tax generators such as industry or shopping malls.

Jones and Hook contend that the county needs to raise taxes, but Kelley says a tax increase is not in the cards. The commissioners have taken steps in the past year to throttle back development, she says, which should make it easier for the schools to keep up with enrollment growth over the next decade.

"We're pedaling as fast as we can," Kelley says.

But despite a little grumbling about class crowding, she says, "no one is moving out of Calvert County because the schools are bad."

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