Maryland schools battle with limited funding and space as enrollment grows

Hundreds of thousands of students return to classrooms across the D.C. area.
By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More than 200,000 Maryland students streamed back to crowded classrooms Monday as school systems dealt with growth but little money to hire more teachers.

In Montgomery County, the state's largest school system, parents said they were anxious about increased class sizes but sanguine about the schools' future under a successor to Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, who is retiring in June. Enrollment swelled by 2,200 students -- 1.5 percent -- this year, hundreds more than forecast. Howard and Charles counties also returned to school Monday.

"It's important to try to keep the class sizes down, so that the teachers will have time to work with all the students," said Steve Lowe, who was waiting for a bus with his daughter, Samantha, before her first day in the fourth grade at the gifted program at Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School in Rockville.

The school system cut its budget by 4.4 percent and increased class sizes by an average of one student.

At Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda, enrollment has grown to 770 this year from 650 last year, mostly in kindergarten and first grade. Principal Charlene Eroh Garran said that she had hired two veteran teachers and two rookies in the past month and had to find new space in the school to accommodate all the students, but she was optimistic that things would work out. Any more and she'll have to call in the trailers, she said.

"But the PTA has been great," Garran said. The group has funded after-school activities and computers for some of the new classrooms.

One member of the school's Parent Teacher Association worried that there was a limit to its largesse.

"There's only so much we can do, financially and legally," said Veronica Walgamotte, whose two children started second and fifth grades Monday. "We can't hire more teachers."

Weast made a back-to-school tour Monday, the final of his 12 years as superintendent, starting the day at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

"I do think leaving is going to be a little harder than I thought it was," he said.

Weast said he was confident that students would wind up in their correct classrooms, even if a wave of late registrations meant that the school system won't know exactly how many students it has for another month. Montgomery schools expect about 144,000 students this year, and more than 2,200 students have registered in just the past few weeks. They're still streaming in, officials said.

"Just think of planning a dinner party, how exciting it is, without knowing how many people are coming," Weast said.

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