Chaos control is a challenge as Montgomery enrollment surges

Marilyn Hiatt, of Oakland Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring, tries to get the attention of third- and fourth-graders during lunch. Grades take shifts in the cafeteria and have 25 minutes to eat.
Marilyn Hiatt, of Oakland Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring, tries to get the attention of third- and fourth-graders during lunch. Grades take shifts in the cafeteria and have 25 minutes to eat. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009

Oakland Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring, one of the most overcrowded schools in an crowded district, has 800 students, 10 kindergarten classes, 11 portable classrooms and only four and a half restrooms. But the numbers are an abstraction until lunchtime.

At 11:25 a.m. one recent day, the cafeteria was packed with 175 kindergartners, many of whom seemed to be making as much noise as possible. As the din crescendoed, someone turned off the lights to calm the students down. Most fell silent, and Jennifer Dunkin, the team leader who was riding herd over the group, began reading from a book.

But the noise level crept up again, and Principal Cheryl Pulliam turned stern. "I cannot hear Ms. Dunkin read, and I want to hear her read!" she yelled.

It was the first of five lunch shifts at Oakland Terrace, which has a state-rated capacity of 456 students. Montgomery County officials project that the school will have 873 students next school year and 912 the year after that. A new elementary school is being built to relieve overcrowding in the area, but it isn't scheduled to be completed until 2012. Parents and school system officials are working on an emergency solution, such as sending students to a satellite campus.

"It seems like we're at capacity," said Michele Vecchio, a parent volunteer in the cafeteria. "So the future is what I'm worried about, mostly."

Oakland Terrace is an extreme example of what is happening in fast-growing Montgomery, where school enrollment surged to more than 140,000 students this year and is projected to hit 148,000 by 2014. Other school systems are growing even more rapidly: Loudoun County's enrollment rose from 32,000 in 2000 to 57,000 in 2008, spurred by rapid development. The recession has also had an impact, as parents who might have once sent their children to private schools enroll them in public schools.

On Nov. 19, Montgomery's Board of Education passed a $1.49 billion, six-year plan to build two new schools and expand several others. But the plan requires the approval of a county government grappling with a struggling economy. Even if the plan is approved, construction will take years.

The good news is that the school's test results have stayed strong, with more than 90 percent of students passing state reading and math exams this year.

"All of these kids are my babies. I don't turn any child away," said Pulliam, who said she knows that some students come from outside the neighborhood, their parents attracted by the school's reputation for academic success. "I'm going to make it work."

And it does. Nearly every room is used for class space, and 11 temporary classrooms are packed onto what was once used as a play area. A neighboring park handles soccer games during recess. During class time, the halls are quiet and the school seems no different than a less-crowded one; class sizes average 18 students per teacher.

But when the classrooms are emptied for lunch and recess, carefully controlled chaos ensues. During one recent lunch period, dozens of 5-year-olds piled into the serving room, got their food and headed to the cafeteria, where parent volunteers and paraeducators, led by Dunkin, kept watch. Students who had to use the restroom were tagged with clothespins; others asked for help opening milk; most ate and talked.

"We have lots of job security with all these children," Lynn Strosnider, a media specialist, mused.


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