By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun
9:01 PM EDT, October 19, 2011
At Stoneleigh Elementary School south of Towson, classrooms are too crowded to hold all the students, so many classes are held in portable trailers parked outside. It's a common problem in Baltimore County's York Road corridor, where trailers are being used at eight of the 12 elementary schools from Stoneleigh to the Pennsylvania line.
Now, county school officials are poised to offer some creative solutions — including moving Stoneleigh students more than a mile away to a school on the other side of Towson, and building a new school in Mays Chapel.
The 700-seat elementary planned for Mays Chapel is already unpopular with some area residents, who say they will fight efforts to build on 10 acres in a heavily used park amid condos and high rises. "There is so little open space in the entire area that we don't want to lose [it]," said Whistler Burch, co-chairman of the group Save Mays Chapel Park.
But school officials do have support for a proposal to move Stoneleigh's staff and 679 students into George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology next year while an addition is built on the elementary. The old Carver was going to be razed after students at the school moved into a new arts magnet high school being built on adjacent playing fields.
"We overwhelmingly were in support of Carver," said Juliet Fisher, one of the parents who has been outspoken on the need for an addition to Stoneleigh. She said that work on the addition would be shortened from 20 months to 14 months if contractors don't have to work around a school in session.
School officials said a decision on whether to move Stoneleigh in the fall will be announced Thursday. "There is some good solid thinking behind making the move," said Kara Calder, who is in charge of planning for the school system.
The school system is playing catch up since large numbers of children began showing up in the past several years, particularly in elementary schools. The latest enrollment numbers will not be released for several weeks, but parents in the central area say the number of kindergarten classes has grown to four and five in many schools this year.
And overall the numbers have continued to climb this year, forcing school officials to consider capping enrollment at West Towson Elementary, which opened just last year. It is already over capacity and has no space to put a trailer out back.
Parents and school officials say a number of factors appear to have played into the increase in enrollment.
Communities around Towson have been attracting more young families who "want access to the city and good schools," Fisher said. "A lot of people are moving into the West Towson area because of the new school."
Calder said the school system has heard anecdotally that people move into area communities because the schools are very successful.
And amid the economic downturn, some parents say that neighbors are sending their children to public schools, instead of paying private school tuitions that can top $20,000 a year.
Cathi Forbes, the head of Towson Families United, points out that the squeeze today also is partly the result of decisions made more than a decade ago to close two elementaries — Ridge Ruxton and Towson — as well as to make Cromwell Valley Elementary a magnet.
Some of the same issues are now confronting Hampton Elementary School, just north of Towson.
A two-year construction project is underway to nearly double its size, and parents are concerned that the school system will want to move a grade or two out for a year and into a middle school to complete the work, said Yara Cheikh, the mother of three Hampton students.
Looking at the plans, she said, it is clear the kindergarten will have to be moved out, she said. Instead, Cheikh suggests setting up a complex of five connected trailers with bathrooms and enclosed hallways on Hampton's grounds. She said the solution is cheaper than moving a grade to another location.
County school officials did not comment on their plans for Hampton.
With parents and community groups looking everywhere for an empty seat in the York Road corridor, a worn, old school that was to be torn down this year is now seen as the answer.
Carver, once the county's segregated black high school, was turned into Towsontown Junior High during integration and then became an arts magnet when a new middle school was built. Parents are suggesting it be transformed once again into a middle school or an elementary.
"The idea of tearing down a viable building seems kind of silly," Fisher said, particularly at a time when money is tight. "We know this is coming to the middle school. We know it is coming to the high school.
"Why don't we start thinking about viable options. Let's start being a little more proactive in our planning."
While parents also are counting on a new elementary at Mays Chapel to ease crowding, Burch is determined to stop the construction. He said his group, Save Mays Chapel Park, has created a website and is ready to fight to preserve scarce open space.
"Within one square mile there are 2,200 residential units," Burch said. "We think there are better solutions."
Burch said the school system should "find another space." Asked where there might be other spaces, he suggested that Carver be rehabbed.