Thursday, October 6, 2011

BCPS answers questions about capping and rising enrollment

Members of the Rodgers Forge Elementary School-Based Management Committee, which is a group of parents and staff that meet to work on instructional issues, met yesterday afternoon with two representatives from Baltimore County Public Schools: Assistant Superintendent for Zone 3 Elementary Schools Verletta White and Kara Calder, executive director of planning and support operations. 

The meeting was held to address questions that parents, teachers and staff raised after learning that BCPS was considering capping enrollment at West Towson Elementary and sending many of its overflow students to RFES. 

Ms. White and Ms. Calder went through a list of frequently asked questions and then took additional questions from those at the meeting. Here is a brief recap: 

Ms. White said that in the time since the letter was written, enrollment has slowed at West Towson and that the school has not been capped and “a cap is not imminent.” 

Parents and staff wanted to know what measures WTES was taking to house its own students before any students would be diverted to RFES. 

Ms. Calder said West Towson has a capacity of 451 students and its unofficial enrollment now is 521. She said if enrollment reaches 551 then the school wouldn’t be able to accommodate more students because relocatables/trailers/learning cottages will not fit on the school grounds. She said the measures the school has taken so far to accommodate its rising numbers include: integrating more special education students into traditional classrooms to transform a special ed room into a traditional classroom; conducting music classes in the hallway; holding vocal music classes in an atrium; and changing the science lab into a classroom. Both Ms. Calder and Ms. White acknowledged that RFES had lived with these types of accommodations for years when it was severely overcrowded.

Ms. Calder also said WTES still has a dedicated art room that could be transformed into a classroom and that a faculty room also has the potential to become a classroom. 

“Special Permission” students also came up. These are students who don’t live in a district but whose parents work at the school or at BCPS’ headquarters so they are allowed to attend a non-zone school. Ms. Calder said WTES has 15 such students and RFES has 21 and that in the future the principals will be able to decline most new special-permission students due to being over capacity. Students who are already at the schools will not be removed in order to avoid disrupting their educational track. 

Ms. Calder and Ms. White said that it was clear when WTES was built that it would not solve all the overcrowding problems. They said that based on the site limitations, it could not have been built to accommodate more students by, for example, adding a third level. Parking, busing and evacuation would all have been too problematic if the school were bigger, Ms. Calder said. 

In order to address the overcrowding that is plaguing schools in the York Road corridor, BCPS is recommending that a new 700-seat elementary school be built in the Lutherville area. 

This raised a question of redistricting. Ms. Calder said she couldn’t say too much because BCPS had not yet talked to parents at other schools but that Rodgers Forge’s boundary is “really compact and there is not a lot we could carve out of your boundary or bring in. … It’s just not likely we’ll do anything with your boundary.” 

Because Mays Chapel is one of the sites mentioned for a new school, and because the Mays Chapel community successfully fought a new school there several years ago, the BCPS officials were asked why things would be different now. 

“We’ll have to see how that plays out,” Ms. Calder said. “This is a different time, a different board, a different administration and a different project. The schools are more overcrowded now than they were in 2009. And schools make great neighbors. They are fabulous for communities.” 

Some of the questions revolved around the August 24 letter about capping at WTES that was signed by Mrs. Deise but that in fact was written by BCPS officials and that contained no details about the capping plan. Ms. Calder said the letter was BCPS’ way of keeping parents in the loop and staying ahead of rumors. “Our goal was to not have some surprise bubble up.” 

Some parents said it was not the letter’s vagaries that were the issue but the fact that RFES parents were not part of the decision-making process from the beginning. Ms. Calder and Ms. White said they are open to looking at the idea of having some sort of a liaison between RFES and BCPS so that parents’ interests can be taken into account during planning. 

The issue of middle school capacity was also raised, and Ms. Calder said that the 2-to-10 year projections would be released in January and will be telling. “We know the kids all have to go some place,” she said. 

Near the end of the meeting Ms. White was asked to clarify if capping at West Towson is still an option or not. “We have to look at it day by day,” she said. “If we see a need come spring, we will have to make a decision at that time. We are hoping to get capital improvements [a new school and school additions] to relieve the needs but if that does not happen, then yes, we’re back at this place.” 

Ms. Calder said, “Are we going to send all of their Kindergarten students here? No. Are we going to annex a grade here? No. There are some other things we can do but it’s not appropriate to discuss them yet.” 

Ms. White added: “Capping is one of the last resorts.”