Though most say bigger is not better for school size, the Howard County Board of Education was left with little choice when it voted unanimously to raise the maximum capacity of new elementary schools from 596 seats to 788.
"With the increase in population density and the county's zoning, the concept of small, intimate schools is not possible," said Sandra H. French, school board chairman.
The decision has raised questions from community members who wonder what it will mean for their children's educations.
"Is it the optimal learning environment for 5- to 10-year-olds? I don't think so," said Manor Woods Elementary school PTA President Monique Summers. "At the same time, I think it's a balance between funding and land resources. It's a double-edged sword."
School administrators say land is too scarce to build the multiple small schools that would be needed to accommodate growth. They also say that adding to existing buildings with wings or classroom trailers as the county has been doing was pushing school capacity to the new level.
"This is a more realistic approach," French said. "It is less wise and less safe to cram kids into a building that was built for a smaller number of kids than it is to plan correctly."
The additions are causing problems across the county because core facilities -- cafeterias, hallways, art rooms -- are not getting bigger.
"Art teachers have art on a cart," Summers said. "They have to take their cart from classroom to classroom. That's just not acceptable."
The board's decision this month to raise capacity for new schools cut 100 seats from a 200-seat addition planned at Manor Woods for next year because the hope is that a school will be built to take the overflow by 2006.
A 2004 addition at Rockburn Elementary also was reduced, from 150 seats to 100, along with a 2005 addition at Waverly Elementary. Additions at Lisbon and Ilchester elementaries, set for 2005, were cut altogether.
Three new elementary schools are planned for 2006 in the county's western, northern and northeastern regions, and they will be built to the new scale, school system officials said, if they are built at all.
The state is offering little in terms of funding, and the county likely will not be able to provide the millions necessary to build the schools or some of the additions mentioned.
French said that could force the school system to put children in temporary classrooms.
"That's the one concern I had when we talked about making the additions smaller," French said. "I wonder whether or not the parents would rather have kids in a larger addition as opposed to relocateable" classrooms.
The PTA Council has not taken an official position on the change, said President Deborah Wessner, although, in a March 7 newsletter, she urged the county's 27,000 members to consider several issues surrounding the switch.
The school system has created a committee to look into the decision and will deliver recommendations for changing the county's education specifications to the school board June 12, followed by a public hearing June 26.
Schools across the country are getting bigger, growing at the elementary level from an average of 399 pupils in 1982 to 482 in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Maryland has an average of 560 children per elementary school, and Howard County's average is 529 per school, although many were built for many fewer than that. Education experts find smaller schools more conducive to learning.
In 2001, Del. David Rudolph, a Cecil County Democrat, introduced a bill in an effort to offer extra state funds to districts volunteering to build smaller schools as an incentive to do so.
The text of the bill, which was killed by the Appropriations Committee, claimed children at smaller schools have higher test scores and fewer behavior problems.
It further suggested that the ideal size of an elementary school is between 300 and 400 pupils, a figure met by only eight of Howard County's 37 elementary schools, which have populations on the high end of 806 (Pointers Run) and on the low end of 240 (Running Brook).
French said she is confident school staff members can mask the size of the school and deliver a quality education in the way they run it.
"Having smaller nurturing settings within a larger building can be accomplished provided all of the appropriate supports are in place," French said, such as staffing and resources. "That's the stuff that makes it all work. You can't penny pinch on that."