Rebalancing act in works

The Baltimore Sun

On most mornings, Principal Renee Johnson takes a walk through the halls of Chesapeake Terrace Elementary in southeastern Baltimore County, popping in to see students and the school's nine classroom teachers.

Less than two miles away, her counterpart at Edgemere Elementary, Bob Findley, takes a similar walk, albeit with more stops: He has 24 classroom teachers.

With the help of a recently formed boundary-change committee, school officials are seeking to balance enrollment between the two schools. As of Sept. 30, Chesapeake Terrace was at about 63 percent of its capacity, with 195 students, and Edgemere was at about 94 percent, with 513 students. A study of the area indicated that redistricting could bring both to the 80 percent range.

The potential shifting of students to Chesapeake Terrace will "help because it will give us more resources at our school," Johnson said.

Throughout the county, pockets of growth - particularly in the central and northeastern areas - are countered by areas where the number of students is far below what the schools were designed to hold.

"It's a very tough issue because solutions often present unwanted consequences," JoAnn C. Murphy, the school board president, said of boundary changes. "We've just got to look at this area by area and always, 'Is this in the best interest of children and their families?' "

The opening of Vincent Farm Elementary in White Marsh spurred the latest redrawing of boundary lines, said Michele O. Prumo, executive director of the Department of Planning and Support Operations. The last such change not involving a new school was initiated about a decade ago, between Gunpowder and Kingsville elementaries, to alleviate the latter's overcrowding, she said in an e-mail.

The idea of moving about 60 Edgemere students to Chesapeake Terrace emerged from a study examining southeast-area schools last year. When a school's population starts nearing 60 percent or less of capacity, officials say, the state can begin asking questions - including whether it is time to consider closing the facility. Meanwhile, projections for Edgemere indicated the school would be about 10 percent over capacity in five years, Prumo said.

"That was one of those red flags," she said. The boundary-change committee, which includes school officials and community members, is expected to provide recommendations in February.

The two elementary schools have a similar demographic makeup, and a significant majority of their students pass state tests, though Chesapeake Terrace leads in several areas. Both sit in the county's more remote peninsular areas, in close-knit communities. Many of the students know one another through recreational activities, which could make for a positive redistricting experience, Johnson said.

Even just below its capacity, Edgemere is "using every bit of space" in the split-level facility, Findley said. Last year, he put two music teachers together to provide a classroom for prekindergarten, he said - a change he has since been able to reverse. But his enrollment numbers also have allowed him to have a full-time technology teacher, and full-time art and physical education instructors.

Chesapeake Terrace's capacity presents its own challenges. Fewer students mean fewer teachers and less funding allocated to the school, Johnson and other school officials said. Classes such as music and art are scheduled part time."It's workable; it just takes a little bit of time - and lots of creativity," Johnson said.

With more students, kindergarten teacher Lisa Williams is "hoping for two kindergartens from now on," she said. Another student joining her class of 30 this year has required an extra carpet square, she said, as each spot on her large patterned one is taken.

In contrast, each of Edgemere's four classes has about 20 children.

"People think because we're a smaller school, the class sizes are smaller, and that's not necessarily true," said Karla Smith, Chesapeake Terrace's second-grade teacher, who has 26 pupils.

Classes like Smith's aren't large enough to justify getting a new teacher, Johnson said, but when numbers climb to 35 or 40, there is an opportunity to create two groups, as she did with her 34 fourth-graders.

Edgemere second-grade teacher Carol Toth has about the same number of students as Smith.

"If you have the help, it's not so bad," said Toth, who has had classes about that size for a couple of years. While a smaller class would be nicer for students, Toth added, "we are definitely managing."

Unlike Smith, she also has the benefit of two fellow second-grade teachers in the building.

"We always bounce ideas off each other - it's a true collaboration," she said.

Because she doesn't have access to counterparts in-house, Chesapeake Terrace pre-kindergarten teacher Bonnie Pilkerton said she consults with colleagues at Battle Grove Elementary about curriculum.

Said Pilkerton: "When it's just you, you kind of can't pull some ideas from someone else."

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