Overcrowding in public schools is a growing issue across our state, as school districts accept more children than they can reasonably handle. This congestion puts a strain on resources and affects student behavior and learning. Here in eastern North Carolina, Pitt and Onslow counties are addressing this same issue in two different ways; through redistricting and open enrollment opportunities.
Pitt is a fairly large and diverse county with almost 40 schools available to kids from Pre-K to 12th grade. According to a recent North Carolina based education report, they have 15 schools between 95 and 105% capacity which is what they consider to be full. Residential development in the south-east section of the county is creating record attendance in two particular high schools - DH Conley and South Central. Pitt County School Spokesperson Brock Letchworth says they welcome the challenge.
“The thing I always say though about overcrowding is, for Pitt County schools, it’s actually a pretty good problem to have. Its shows that we’re still growing and it shows that people still have confidence in our schools, and that they still want their kids in public schools in Pitt County. It’s better than the alternative. It’s better than us talking about if we have to shut a school down.”
Schools can always add more classrooms, but that puts additional stress on the main building and the common areas. North Carolina Public School Operations Deputy CFO Ben Matthews says it all comes down to the amount of reasonable work that can be accomplished.
“The gym, the cafeteria, the auditorium and the library are those core rooms. I’ve seen situations where schools, that they’ve gotten so crowded they have classes on the stage. And so that cut out the capability for them for arts and performances.”
Another symptom of overcrowding is the appearance of mobile classrooms or modular units, where students have to go outside of the main building. Also the number of teachers doesn’t match the number of available classrooms putting extra strain on instructors. Pitt County Association of Educators President and current teacher Emily Klinedinst is in the midst of the struggle to teach in these conditions.
“The Math Department, they are overcrowded, and that’s one of the concerns that those teachers were having. When you look at this year’s grades, compared to previous when their class sizes were lower, there are more kids who are doing poorly, because they are not able to get the attention. When you have a 50 minute class, you can’t get to all 40 kids, to help them, or to call them up one on one and let me walk you through this.”
To address the issue of overcrowding, the Pitt County Board of Education is exploring other options before getting into redistricting discussions, which has been a contentious issue for parents in the past. Pitt is considering capital improvements such as adding onto existing buildings, but one idea on the table, is to give parents more choices. Open Enrollment would allow students to attend another school that is currently under-capacity, therefore balancing the attendance between various high schools. Special programs at these schools could even attract students from more distant areas. Letchworth says these programs could be available as soon as the 2016-2017 school year and may include themes such as STEM, an Arts focused program and possibly a year-round school.
“It’s something we have to explore and we certainly have to offer it. And based off what we’ve learned from conversations with parents, I mean, it’s something that parents want more of is the choice. So we’re trying to do a little more of that.”
Constructing new school buildings is another way to address the issue, but not always the solution. Matthews frequently reviews plans for new public schools in growing districts across the state.
“I would say in probably 100 percent of the cases in this state where new schools are built, the people building them believe that they’ll be able to handle the population. Well what happens is, the populations all of a sudden change, and then you get in the situation where you have more kids than you have space available.”
When this happens, schools often turn to the Institute of Operations Research and Education at NC State. This laboratory offers a highly intuitive service called Integrated Planning for School and Community that evaluates a school district’s needs, challenges and capabilities. Their formulas for redistricting examine countless sources of data including building permits, past economic growth, and birth rates, and then project student enrollment for the next decade. North Carolina State University’s Institute of Operations Research and Education Director Michael Miller tries to balance utilization between schools, so the families in those districts have the same types of opportunities.
“The school board and our group, have to look at the welfare of the entire district. Which means that if some schools are overcrowded, students are going to have to be reassigned. And some may go to that new school, and some may be reassigned to an existing school. We try to minimize that, but it’s a reality.”
That reality is also true in Onslow County, where new housing developments, new businesses, and the constant change of military presence at Camp Lejeune are contributing to a population increase. This growth directly affects schools, as scores of new children enter the system each year. Onslow County Schools Public Information Officer Suzie Ulbrich says 11 schools are currently at 105% capacity or greater. She says some kids are getting to school and having to eat lunch just an hour later, because the school has to put in so many lunch periods.
“Resources are affected too! We’ve had to take computer labs down and make classrooms out of them. We’ve had to shorten the gymnasium use because we’re using it for classrooms. So there’s just resources that are strained.”
Over capacity issues are also combined with outdated technology. With older school buildings, students are not getting the same modern experiences. These established structures were not designed or built to install WiFi, making it difficult to provide optimal technological opportunities. Working with the County Commissioners and the Institute of Operations Research and Education at NC State, the Onslow Board of Education has created a plan to address these problems.
“We sat down last year and we have a 10 year plan for a couple new schools, and some expansion of some schools, and for some replacement of some schools.”
Research Director Miller applauds the progress of cooperating counties like Onslow.
“There needs to be a healthy political climate in between school board leadership and the county government. And fortunately that happens a lot in North Carolina. We have some great commissioners and great school boards that work together. Not in every case, but in the successful cases, that’s really the thing that can make things improve.”
Together they studied each age group, how many actual classrooms were available and then figured out the optimal amount of students per room.
Redistricting efforts are already in place for the 2015-16 school year, in the two areas that had the greatest overcrowding, Richlands Area Schools and Carolina Forest Elementary School. These new school district lines will affect approximately 337 elementary kids, 275 middle-schoolers, and 423 high school students. While some folks are not happy about the move, Ulbrich and the Onlsow County Board of Education believe students will adapt much more quickly than parents. Their goal is to help make the transition smoother by allowing families to meet the new teachers.
“Right now we’re in the process of planning as many activities throughout the summer, to get the parents and children who are being redistricted into those schools, to start the process of becoming more comfortable before school starts.
Public School Operations Deputy CFO Matthews urges us to consider the optimal place for students to reach their potential.
“We all have to think about the impact your surroundings have on your performance and behavior. Then think about the spaces that our children are in, and are those spaces providing the best opportunity for our kids to learn.”
The State does provide a facility guideline that suggests sizes for rooms and other areas within a school. They also recommend a range for enrollment based on studies of improved safety, violence reduction, optimal educational facilitation, and smaller class sizes for better interactions between students and teachers.
To review the State School Facility Guidelines, go to: http://www.schoolclearinghouse.org/pubs/FacilityGuidelines%20%28April%202014%29.pdf