Schools get a C for ‘crowded’; Student influx, changes in classroom use take toll

By Tom Troy and Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writers

By 1:36 every afternoon, Perrysburg High School seniors Kelly Rose and Brock Gan kow sky are out the door, done with school, along with dozens of other seniors.

The early departure is more than just a senior perk.

It’s one way Principal John Pertner is cutting down on the crowding in the hallways.

“If you have all your credits filled up, they schedule your class so you can get out,” Kelly, 17, said. “It’s getting worse.”

Students and administrators are jostling for space in some of Toledo’s suburban school districts.

Some examples:

* The school system in Bedford Township is busing kindergarteners and high school freshmen to rented space in a nearby church.

* At Fulton Elementary in Evergreen, the books have been moved out of the library into the auditorium and replaced with classroom space.

* At Perrysburg High School, portable buildings are being added at the rate of one a year.

This year, America’s public and private school population reached an all-time high of 52.2 million students, and that trend is expected to continue through 2007. Ohio’s public school enrollment of 1.8 million in 1994 is projected to decline 2.9 per cent during the period.

Even though the school-age population in the state is declining, outmigration from cities such as Toledo is putting enrollment pressure on the suburbs.

The boom will hit high schools hardest. Nationally, the number of high school students is expected to increase 13 per cent over the next decade. For Ohio, secondary enrollment will go up 3.6 per cent, the U.S. Department of Education projects.

“Portable classrooms and short-term solutions just don’t cut it,” Richard Riley, federal education secretary, said at a news conference last week. “Right now, school overcrowding is a local concern, but it has the potential to become a national crisis.”

For Bill Brownson, who works for a company that designs school buildings, that’s great news.

“Business is super,” said Mr. Brownson, an educational consultant for Buehrer Group of Maumee.

Mr. Brownson, a former northwest Ohio school superintendent, said U.S. schools have been in a building boom since about 1992.

His company has planned 20 school additions in the Toledo area in the last two years. Those additions are needed because older buildings now hold fewer students than they used to because of changes in the way schools are structured.

Rooms once reserved for classroom teaching have been given over to other purposes.

Vocational education requires larger work spaces and smaller classes; special-education students are taught in smaller groups. Early-childhood education initiatives such as Head Start require more space for younger children, and technology has meant more space put aside for computers.

“Opponents to bond issues always say, ‘I remember when we had 2,000 students in this district, and now you’ve got 1,700 and you’re saying it’s too crowded?'” Mr. Brownson said. “But the use of the classrooms has changed a lot.”

After years of housing construction, Perrysburg High School is showing the effects.

Enrollment in the high school last week was 1,356, more than 200 above what is considered to be the ideal capacity for the school.

“I swore the growth was going to stop five years ago,” Dr. Pertner said. “I didn’t think our economy could support it.”

Three attempts by the school board to pass a bond issue to build a $39 million high school were defeated by Perrysburg voters.

Inside Perrysburg High School, the crowding is being managed in several ways:

* As many as 230 seniors who have enough credits to qualify, or who are eligible to take courses at area colleges or universities, are allowed to leave the building early.

* Lunches are cut short by a few minutes so students departing the lunchroom won’t jam the door way in a bottleneck with incoming students.

* Classes that some students want – such as four requested sections of psychology that could not be scheduled – aren’t possible for lack of space and teachers.

* At least six teachers keep their class materials on carts, using the classrooms of teachers on planning breaks.

Dr. Pertner said there’s more to the crowding than just a lot of students bumping into each other in the halls and cafeteria.

It means the number of teachers and administrators doesn’t keep pace with the student population.

“You’re talking about building relationships with students,” Dr. Pertner said.

He wants to know the name of every student and make every student feel comfortable.

“Every kid ought to have someone they can turn to,” Dr. Pertner said.

In the last five years, enrollment in Perrysburg’s six schools has grown 18 per cent, from 3,560 in the fall of 1991 to 4,190 in fall of 1996.

Anthony Wayne High School in Whitehouse opened the school year with a $10 million addition to the high school, the latest construction made possible by a $13.4 million bond issue passed in May, 1995.

Last year, a new Waterville Elementary, built for $5 million, replaced the 1922 structure.

The 100,000-square-foot addition to the high school includes 24 classrooms, a gym that can seat 2,300 screaming fans, and a whisper-quiet auditorium with spacious walkways between the rows of seats.

And it’s an architectural marvel in its own way.

The classroom addition looks like a second floor, but it actually sits on piers drilled through the old school. A three-foot gap separates the two levels.

Anthony Wayne school district now could handle 800 more students, enough spare capacity that the district is considering adopting limited open enrollment from adjacent school districts next year.

“We’re looking at being fine for seven to 10 years,” Principal Robert Slykhuis said. Even in this gleaming new space, students are wall-to-wall at lunch and during class changes. And book bags aren’t allowed because they occupy too much space in classes and hallways.

In Bedford Township, the high school was built to hold between 1,100 and 1,300 students. Last year, it had 1,630.

Enrollment this fall was projected at 1,750. But after the start of school last week, the total had jumped to 1,820.

To deal with the crowding, the school board rented six classrooms at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church, at a cost of $32,500 a year.

“We don’t consider it a long-term solution,” Superintendent William Hall said. “But if we can’t get a bond issue passed, it could become a long-term solution.”

He said the board is targeting March for an election, but he notes that no one can guess how many students the school system will have to service 10 or 15 years from now.

Sylvania schools have seen remarkable growth too, with 538 more students last year than five years ago.

The district – the second largest in northwest Ohio – has responded by building a junior high school and adding space to other buildings.

Timberstone Junior High School, a $10 million structure, opened last week. The structure’s design reduces hallway crowding.

The 575-student building is divided into classroom suites called “centrums,” six clusters of four classrooms each.

Each cluster, or centrum, has a math teacher, an English teacher, a science teacher, and a social studies teacher, along with about 100 students.

For most of the school day, the students don’t have to go into Timberstone’s main hallways to change classes.

But until the construction of the last year, Sylvania schools were overflowing.

Administrators banned students from using backpacks in the halls in part because they took up too much space.

“One principal said a kid with a backpack is the equivalent of one and a half kids,” Mary Himmelein, vice president of the Sylvania school board, said.

The Evergreen district, which straddles Fulton and Lucas coun ties, also has been growing: 15 per cent in the last five years. Those extra students have forced administrators to be creative with space. Besides putting the library on a stage, officials have converted closets to classrooms and changed showers into speech rooms. Some classes have as many as 29 students.

“For us, that’s too many to do a really good job with the kids,” Superintendent Russell Griggs said.

From kindergarten through 12th grade, Evergreen averages 24 students a class.

Locally, average class sizes range from 18.3 in Ottawa Hills to 24.7 in Woodmore school district.

But more people continue to move in. Housing starts in the sprawling Evergreen district are up, and the schools have had to turn down the requests of students in adjacent districts trying to take advantage of Evergreen’s open-enrollment policy.

Mr. Griggs said he is examining the possibility of a bond issue in May to fund construction. “We’re getting closer to being over packed,” he said. “We’re using almost every square inch of facilities we have.”

The same is true in the Otsego district, where the school system has set up classrooms in hallways with only partitions dividing them. Modular buildings to house six classrooms are to arrive this week. Closets and stages have become impromptu classrooms.

Superintendent Joe Long said the school system is investigating how better to use its facilities, but in the meantime, it has been forced to use money intended for roof repairs to obtain the modular buildings.

Even schools in cities such as Toledo – where the population has dropped 15 per cent since 1970 – are crowded.

Because of declining enrollment, Toledo Public Schools closed about a dozen schools in the early 1980s and closed two high schools in 1991.

But in 1995, one of the elementaries – Warren school near downtown – was reopened to relieve crowded north-end schools.

Since then, the city district has added 38 classrooms, many of those to handle special-education classes, David Coon, district main tenance director, says.

And last week, 10 new high school classrooms came on line with the opening of the Toledo Technology Academy in the former DeVilbiss High School in West Toledo.

George Tombaugh, superintendent of Springfield school district, has seen gradual growth since 1991, after a population burst in the 1980s in his district.

“What has created problems for many of us is the growth in programs, not so much students,” he said, citing things such as art, music, libraries, computer labs, and special-education services that have grown to consume school space.

“What we need to keep in mind is enrollment is actually decreasing across the state of Ohio. It’s mostly sprawl. If we did not have new construction in our school district, we would be declining in enrollment because the birthrate is down.”

Education Secretary Riley’s comments about crowding struck home with Perrysburg Superintendent Sharon Zimmers.

“I thought he was talking about Perrysburg,” she said. “We’re on the cusp of what’s happening nationally.”

She said Perrysburg makes greater academic demands on its students than Ohio’s education laws require.

“The quality you want to offer is a local decision,” she said. Reducing that demand is one way to free space in school. “It would also mean less science, less math, less English.”