By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; B01
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.
Weast also marked the release of a report Monday praising Montgomery's early childhood program. The report, by the Foundation for Child Development and the Pew Center on the States, says the program has helped the county improve literacy and narrow performance gaps between racial and ethnic groups.
This will be a pivotal year for the school system, one of the country's top performers, as the community searches for a new superintendent and discusses the direction of the schools.
The leader of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations said that she wanted the school board to listen to those voices as they searched for a new leader.
"We're really hoping there's a piece in there for looking for community input," said Kristin Trible, the president of the county PTA, who has two children at Damascus High School. She wanted the same from the new superintendent.
"We will want someone who's a good communicator, is transparent and is welcoming of parent input," she said. "There's going to be some people who want something totally different from Dr. Weast, but there are a lot of us who think we've come a long way. There have been bumps along the way."
Several Walter Johnson students said that they were happy to be back at school but that they didn't think the superintendent search would have much impact on their lives.
"It's great to see all my friends," said Tamaro Collins, 15, a sophomore. But, he said of Weast, "I haven't heard of him."
Many other Maryland school systems, including Prince George's County, began classes Aug. 23, as did D.C. public schools. Most Northern Virginia school systems resume Sept. 7.