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School overcrowding, underenrollment under review, with moving sixth-graders to middle schools among the proposals

by Abby Brownback

Staff Writer

The boundaries for several Prince George’s County elementary and specialty schools might be shifting to address student enrollment shifts, with school officials considering moving sixth-graders from overcrowded elementary schools to underenrolled middle schools.

Officials hope the boundary changes will reduce the number of overenrolled elementary schools in the northern part of the county and make better use of underenrolled middle schools, address schools with confusing boundary lines, and acquire additional space for early childhood education.

Parents at Yorktown Elementary School in Bowie, which is under capacity by more than 200 students, want to see its enrollment increase, said Susanne Reinthaler, who has a second grade student at the school.

“They’re bursting at the seams, and we have room to move,” she said in reference to other Bowie elementary schools — Heather Hills, Rockledge and Whitehall — that are overcrowded.

“A thriving school that has an appropriate population is ideal for every school,” she said.

The school system, which has solicited community input at recent public forums, examines school boundaries annually in an attempt to draw them in such a way as to create neighborhood-centric schools, said Johndell Jones-Brown, director of the Office of Pupil Accounting and Student Boundaries.

“Whenever a school is created, that’s always the underlying goal,” he said. “You want it to be a neighborhood fixture.”

Another factor is the number of students who can walk to a school, Jones-Brown said.

“If we can spend money on teachers rather than buses, that’s a good thing,” Jones-Brown said.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. will present potential boundary changes to the school board in early November, Jones-Brown said. Public hearings will follow before board members vote on the proposal in December.

Changes to boundary lines also could alleviate overcrowding in Hyattsville’s Lewisdale Elementary School, Riverdale Elementary School, Beltsville’s Calverton Elementary School and others.

Countywide, schools are underenrolled by an average of 89 students, but about 30 schools are overenrolled by more than 50 students, according to preliminary data the school system collected this fall for the state.

Removing all sixth-grade students from elementary schools would increase the student count at middle schools, which are underenrolled by an average of 183 students, according to the enrollment data.

Middle schools that house sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students are more effective because the model increases the length of time between transitions to a new school, A. Duane Arbogast, the school system’s chief academic officer, told school board members in mid-October.

“I think we have notions about readiness, and I don’t think we have any data to support that,” he said in response to concerns about whether sixth-grade students can handle a middle school environment.

Board member Edward Burroughs III (Dist. 8) balked at the idea of including sixth-grade classes in middle schools, as is done in about half of the county’s 24 traditional middle schools, though he supports the kindergarten to eighth-grade school model.

“Across the board, elementary schools are stronger than middle schools,” he said. “It’s a proven fact our elementary schools are doing well.”

Of the 64 Prince George’s County elementary and middle schools that met federally mandated achievement goals this year, just eight enroll sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, according to data from the state Department of Education. There are 164 public elementary and middle schools in the county.

The reconfiguring of school boundaries also might affect autism and early childhood centers, Jones-Brown said.

Both Frances Fuchs Early Childhood Center in Beltsville and H. Winship Wheatley Early Childhood Center in Capitol Heights exceed their state-rated capacity by about 150 students.

But smaller elementary schools worry about their size, too, because it correlates directly with funding, Jones-Brown said.

“A small enrollment limits the resources available,” he said.

Yorktown Elementary, for example, only has the population to sustain a part-time physical education teacher and a part-time guidance counselor, Reinthaler said.

“What I’m most concerned about is an unequal distribution of children within the whole Bowie neighborhood,” she said. “I’d like them to all have the same access to amenities.”

abrownback@gazette.net