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From the empty halls adorned with hand-painted turkeys and small green lockers, overcrowding wouldn’t seem like an issue in this quiet old elementary school. In reality, Catonsville Elementary is at 100 percent enrollment, packed as much as it can be with its student body. Baltimore County Public Schools are to see changes in their school’s architecture depending if county officials approve the capital budget for expansion and renovations in upcoming months.

Instead of tiny little feet skipping to music class in the Betsy Fultz Auditorium on this Thursday evening, evident by the black music stands and sheet music to “Sweet Strings Symphony,” an orchestra of parents and teachers take the stage. Rusted beige metal chairs and tables etched with proud PTA letters line the auditorium’s walls for the bi-weekly Catonsville Parent Teacher Association meeting.

Tonight’s agenda includes last meeting’s minutes, McDonald’s fundraiser updates, discussions of a controversial book, but most importantly, updates on the overcrowding issue. President of the Catonsville Elementary PTA Steve Taylor is ready to get things started.

“I motion to start tonight’s agenda,” Taylor says. “Maybe we can get out of here by 11 p.m.”

Tired parents and “Big Bang Theory” show enthusiast are ready to get the meeting underway. Taylor starts by awarding the PTA Lifetime Achievement Award to Nancy Henderson, a revered teacher that has been teaching at the over 100 year-old school for over 30 years.

“We appreciate your years here and are also honoring you a $500 scholarship for seniors at a local high school,” Taylor says.

Gears shift to the overcrowding issue as celebratory slices of cakes and chocolate brownies are passed around the room to the other 26 members of the group along with email lists to thank officials for renovations and new schools.

Special guest and Chairperson Southwest Area Advisory Committee Beverly Coleman informs parents to continue their dynamic push for change.

“It doesn’t stop here, now is the time to voice your opinion,” Coleman rallies. “Write letters, send emails, and attend community meetings. Do anything and everything to express your concerns.”

 

***

Catonsville Elementary is at maximum capacity. However, not every school in the southwestern area is lucky enough to be only at capacity. In the 2012-2013 school year, five out of seven elementary schools in the Catonsville area had enrollment rates higher than the state-mandated capacity. Catonsville has been able to pass the legal requirement. Of the southwestern area schools, the over-capacity rates are between 108 percent and 145 percent. It is predicted that schools will be overcrowded for 10 more years. It will be at the end of the 10-year-plan that the full effects of the proposal are felt.

Thus far, most projections and figures have been based on birth rates. There are other important factors that could go into explaining overcrowding and what needs to be done to resolve it. For example, construction and expansion in the areas bring in more families.

Every school in the area wants new buildings and expansions. Hillcrest has been very vocal about getting renovations. Unfortunately for them, a school can only make a formal request for expansion every 15 years, and Hillcrest had expansions built 10 years ago. Every school in the county has its own challenges.

Many schools in the county lack proper amenities. Catonsville Elementary, for example, is not compliant with the American Disabilities Act, nor does it have fire sprinklers. Catonsville and Westowne Elementary schools also lack air conditioning. Fortunately, the proposal addresses the infrastructure problems in addition to resolving overcrowding.

Every school in the county is suffering from this issue, or at least is feeling the effects of it seeping in from neighboring schools. BCPS has given a priority to all areas in the county.

BCPS looked at a number of factors to come up with their proposal. The most significant variables examined were the net seat gain, number of high priority schools in a two-mile radius, site ownership, historic status of property, present use of existing site and the available acreage. Just about everything possible was taken into account, even the opinions of the community.

***

“Overcrowding is a top issue on our agenda,” says Chief Communications Officer Mychael Dickerson. “It has been an issue for several years, but there is not much to do to project it. Bursts in population can’t always be foreseen. It’s more of a problem in some areas than others.”

The offices started the reach out process to inform families about the proposal last spring. Offices sent out letters and directed the community to leave comments and questions on their website about the proposal and the overarching issue.

“We’ve communicated with stakeholders and community members on how they can get involved,” Dickerson says. “Some communities are paying attention and being active in sharing their voice.”

A lot of the families express concern about possible redistricting, moving students to different schools due to expansion and construction, as result of the proposal.

“We want to let parents know that we are trying to affect as few kids as possible,” Dickerson says. “Redistricting is impossible to avoid, but we are trying to affect as few families as possible.

Dickerson urges the community to attend area meetings to have an active voice in the process.

“We want to be open and transparent, even it makes some people upset,” Dickerson says.

Although there are some parties upset, Dickerson says there is an overwhelming positive support of the proposal. He says that about 75 to 80 percent of this support is because these groups were involved in the planning and conversations around the topic. Dickerson says the remaining percent is from community members who like the schools they reside near, are not interested in moving due to redistricting and certain neighborhoods members don’t want schools built there.

“Our goal is for the community to be informed,” Dickerson says. “The goal is to do the best for the kids. I know it sounds cliché, but smaller class sizes statistically yield higher academic success. We don’t want kids in classes with 32 other kids in it. That’s not good.”

“The 10-year-plan is a roadmap for what we should do for schools in the future,” Dickenson says.

***

The first published news report about the overcrowding issue at Baltimore County schools was released on October 29, 2013. For the general public, it was a sign that this issue exists and, fortunately, is being addressed. Essentially, it is the start of the public’s awareness of a 10-year-plan. It took many board meetings throughout the summer and early fall for BCPS to come out and offer a solution. On that October 29, over a hundred community members gathered at a local high school auditorium, knowing that the BCPS school board would finally disclose everything about overcrowding in county schools.

BCPS proposed plans that would address overcrowding in every area of the county. Four projects were presented: three brand new schools in the Catonsville area and one new school in the Relay area.

Each new school would have approximately 700 seats. Comparing with last year’s data, this would result in a surplus of 350 seats upon the successful execution of the proposal. Taking into account all areas of Baltimore County, in addition to the southwestern area, there would be a total excess of 978 seats. In other words, approximately 1,000 new students will be comfortably accommodated through this plan.

The school system will be creating brand new buildings for three of the schools: Westowne, Relay, and Catonsville elementary schools, if funding is approved. The only school not getting a brand new building is Westchester Elementary, which is receiving considerable additions to its location.

The new Westowne and Relay schools will be built at their current locations. These schools would be demolished to provide substitute field space. Catonsville Elementary School is to be rebuilt at the Bloomsbury Community Center location.

The considerable proposal is made possible largely through BCPS Superintendent Dr. Dallas Dance. He prepared this proposal throughout August and September. It is a significant part of the larger 10-year-plan. The first draft of this report will be released by BCPS in January.

The cost of the proposal is in the tens of millions. It has not been decided how much will be approved.

***

There are costs for this type of expansion and construction; however, not all of them are financial ones. Some parents are concerned about redistricting and the effect that it will have on their children. Other parents and schools are less worried about redistricting due to proximity and recent expansion.

“I can see Catonsville Middle School from out my window,” parent and President of Westchester Elementary PTA Heather Helm says. “I know for a fact that my daughter is going to go there, but other parents who live further out might be more affected.”

Although Westchester is still writing letters, sending emails and attending meetings in support of the proposal and funding, overcrowding is not as much of an issue at Westchester.

“Our community was concerned with the issue, but our school has seen the least overcrowding,” says Helm. “Our school is fairly new, about 13 years-old. We have things that the other schools don’t, like air conditioning, heat and entrances for those with disabilities.”

Helm has only lived in the community for three years. Amongst taking care of her third grade daughter Hazel, leading a 4H chapter, reigning as PTA president and taking care of her 80-year-old mother-in-law, Helm is also noticing a trend in her community.

“A lot more families are moving into the neighborhood,” Helm says.  “A lot of older people live here and once they move out, younger families are moving in.”

Despite changings in the community and different attitudes and opinions around this topic, families are coming together to make a statement and support this proposal.

“At this point, I am really happy with the plan,” Helm says. “I’m amazed that Dr. Dance was able to come up with something that everybody could get behind, even the contentious people.”

Some ask if this proposal is the end, or will there be future issues with overcrowding after construction. Although there are no definite answers, there are some interesting statistics.

“The projects and buildings are to be done in 2016, but by then we will be at capacity,” Helm says. “Looking at the census and projections, we are projected to be at 700 students in 2016, the new school would have 700 seats.”

The most rewarding aspect of this plan for the former parks and recreation employee is that construction plans to use the space already there.

“They are not taking away any open space like parks,” Helm says. “They are using the space that is already there. Catonsville Middle would be demolished and built up and the other schools would just be added on to.”

***

Redistricting continues to be the biggest deterrent towards this proposal for many parents. No one wants redistricting to occur. This decision will be made once construction has actually started on new schools. Approximately 100 Catonsville families would get redistricted.

Right now communities are waiting on the state and county for funding. Final decisions will be made in the spring. Funding is the main issue.

The proposal first has to be approved by the Baltimore County School Board. The funding request, the most debated part, must be approved by the County Council and voter referendum. It is the County Council’s role to finance improvements recommended by school system leaders. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has already declared that he will provide funding to support the proposal.

July 2014 is the tentative start date for the projects, and August 2016 is the tentative completion date. Ideally, the southwest area of Baltimore County will be completely overhauled and operational for the 2016-2017 school year.

Meanwhile, BCPS has said it will implement additional short-term capacity relief strategies as needed. However, they were not specific about what exact actions would be taken.

This will be a lengthy time of transition for the Baltimore County community.

“I don’t know if our voices matter [at this point],” Steve Taylor, president of the Catonsville PTA, says. “The school board is already behind it. They already know what we need. We just have to wait to see if funding is going to pass.”

***

“Just imagine what they could do with bigger schools and more resources,” Kristen Bork says, a student tutor and jump-rope instructor in the Baltimore area.

Bork, like many members of the Baltimore community, would be happy to see new schools built for students, especially the children that she teaches.

When she first took on her position as an afterschool tutor last spring at Arundel Elementary and Middle, she knew that she was going to be working in older buildings and, at first, didn’t think anything of it.

“You realize what they don’t have,” Bork says, about the lack of facilities, amenities and programs at those schools. She tries to do the very best she can for her students, especially because of the little luxury they have at their school. Bork teaches jump-rope at Gardenville Elementary school and criticizes its freezing temperatures due to the school’s poor heating systems.

“The elementary school I went to was much bigger, it had a huge library,” Bork recalls. She knows these students deserve to have the same luxuries she was lucky enough to have when she was young.

Bork loves the students that she gets to work with. “They are the sweetest kids with the biggest hearts,” she says.

At the end of her first day teaching jump-rope, she gave away jump-ropes to each of the kids. “Giving them jump-ropes was like Christmas to them,” Bork reminisces.

With bigger schools, more after-school programs would become available. The overcrowding issue has kept students from having as many opportunities. For people like Bork, and for the students she teaches, the proposal for bigger and better schools is very promising and indicates a bright future.

“I really do care a lot about them,” Bork says, and she strongly desires their well-being. One of the most important qualities that matter to her is how well she is able to connect and have a positive relationship with all the kids she gets to work with. They usually run up and hug her at the end of a session. She takes pride in being able to have a bond with the children and in being a part of their lives. As Bork talks more and more about what she does, she can’t stop smiling when talking about how much she loves spending time with the kids.

Although the community is playing a waiting game with the approval of the capital budget, hopes are high the funding will pass and students and teachers will be in better educational facilities. For now, the community must wait in anticipation to see if overcrowding will be fixed.

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