Prince William saw its student population jump by 2,994 this year, the biggest increase in the past 30 years.
As of Oct. 1, the deadline for submitting enrollment numbers to the state, Prince William had 66,093 students, 372 more than what had been projected. The robust 4.7 percent increase marks a continuation of rapid growth for the county.
Unsurprisingly, the growth has led to crowded schools in the western and central areas of the county, where new houses are under construction at a fast clip. The county's most crowded school, Tyler Elementary in Gainesville, has 738 students in a building designed to hold 472.
But even areas that haven't seen new construction in years are coping with an overload. Bel Air Elementary in Woodbridge has 499 students in a building designed for 390.
Bel Air Principal Bruce Leiby said that's a far cry from his days as principal of Bristow Run Elementary, which once had more than 1,000 students, but that it still requires some creative planning.
"We're hanging in there," Leiby said. "I wish we had a few more rooms here or there," but teachers and students have been cooperative, he said.
To deal with the growth, principals are adding teachers, turning multipurpose rooms into classrooms, bringing in teacher assistants, dismissing students in shifts and juggling bell schedules to keep the crunch from overwhelming students and staff members.
Like Bel Air Elementary, Graham Park Middle School in Triangle is not in an area of new construction. However, the school has 1,271 students. It was built for 867.
Principal Gary Anderson hypothesized that the high transient rate in the attendance area could be bringing in the students.
But even though Graham Park is the second-most crowded school in the county, its enrollment is still less than the 1,300 students that had been projected. Anderson said that because the school has coped with crowding for years, there are several long-standing solutions for handling the overload.
For example, different bell schedules mean that the students are not all in the halls at the same time. Students who ride the bus home are dismissed in two shifts. Six lunch shifts keep the cafeteria from becoming crammed. A portion of the library is used as a classroom for English as a Second Language students.
"We've done lots of creative things," Anderson said. "I think it's working reasonably well."
Penn Elementary in Woodbridge, in an area of rapid growth, has 884 students in a 674-student building, making it the county's fourth-most crowded school.
Principal Jane Wheeless was ready to add another third-grade teacher to deal with all the students. However, her current third-grade teachers, who had the same students last year in the second grade, rejected the idea. They wanted to stay with their children. Teacher assistants have been hired to help in the classrooms, Wheeless said.
"They just didn't want to create a new classroom and lose those kids," Wheeless said.
Cedar Point Elementary, in another fast-growing area, has the county's largest enrollment at the elementary school level -- 1,128 students. The Bristow school was built for 852 and is the third-most crowded in the county.
However, the enrollment is still down from a "crescendo" of more than 1,200 last year, Principal Michael Drummond said. At its height, the school enrolled three to five students a week during the year.
Still, crowding is not that noticeable during the day when students are in classes, he said. "When you notice it is at dismissal and arrival," when the children stream in, Drummond said. The rest of the time, students and staff members come together to make the situation work.
"The most important thing a principal can do is work with staff, work with parents and work with students to keep everyone focused on instruction and safety and fun," he said.