Enrollment Growth In Schools Declines
Crowding Persists at Some Campuses

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

At Brentsville District High School in Nokesville, crowding has become such a chronic problem that school officials have instituted traffic patterns for stairwells and cafeteria entrances and exits. There is one stair for "up" and one for "down."

Trailers? Brentsville has those, too. The school has more than doubled the number of portable classrooms, as they are politely called by school officials, over the past two years, from six to 13.

"With the adjustments we've made, the feedback I am getting from students is that it doesn't feel as crowded as it did last year," said Brentsville's principal, Robert Scott. "The trailers are not ideal, but they've alleviated crowding. The tone is really positive."

The Prince William County school system's enrollment has continued to rise, but the pace has slowed.

The latest figures show that the system grew this year by 2.7 percent, to 72,654 students from 70,683 last year. Eleven of the system's more than 80 schools are deemed significantly overcrowded.

Prince William remains the second largest school system in Northern Virginia, and it could overtake Virginia Beach's system as the second largest in the state, once that school system releases its data this month.

The county's rate of increase is lower than the 3.6 percent increase last year and represents a significant decrease from early this decade, when the school system's enrollment was rising by nearly 5 percent a year.

Still, the slight decline in the rate of growth does not mean that the school system can stop worrying about crowding. School Board members are likely to cite the continued growth in budget negotiations this year and next with the Board of County Supervisors and lobby to raise the tax rate or tax bills.

Although only two middle schools and two high schools are considered extremely crowded, seven elementary schools are well over capacity: Alvey, Bel Air, Bristow Run, Cedar Point, Mountain View, Neabsco and Triangle. The introduction of all-day kindergarten, for instance, has become so popular, school officials said, that the number of kindergartners rose to 5,711, from 5,298 last year.

"We didn't expect that many students based on monitoring of the real estate market," said David Beavers, the school system's planning director. He added that the growth is coming mainly from an increase in the number of students per home, not the number of new households.

At Brentsville, which is surrounded by new and coming developments, Scott, the principal, said he and his staff have had to be creative about the building's design. The school's enrollment, 1,532 students, is more than 400 over the building's capacity. A new high school was scheduled to open in the area in 2010, but it has been delayed by a year.

Scott pointed to one technique that has been useful in combating the crowding: All of the 165 or so students taking classes in six trailers near the school's tennis courts are dismissed from class one minute earlier than the rest of the students.

That way a traffic jam is avoided, because the students in the trailers walk back into the main building before other students walk out to the trailers using the same doors.

And there are the stairwells that act practically as one-way streets. "The students have created huge signs," Scott said. "They're like traffic signs that they've hung on the walls."

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