The plan and the problem of overcrowded schools in Harford County

Posted at 9:49 PM, Oct 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-15 23:43:44-04

Harford County Schools has a growing problem.  Too many students coming into some schools that already have overcrowded classrooms.

Amy Jahnigen doesn't miss much when it comes to Homestead-Wakefield Elementary, the school her three sons attend.  She's a constant at school board meetings and is a member of the PTA, “We’re an overcrowded school, and we really don’t want to push redistricting,” said Jahnigen. “We want to focus on how do we stop the overcrowding? Getting more teachers in the classroom, get the facilities updated. We have a playground from 1958, so this year actually focus on one of our buildings, it’s their 60th anniversary.”

Cornell Brown, Harford County Schools Assistant Superintendent of Operations, said Maryland has a formula that looks at the number and type of classrooms at each school.  Given those numbers they establish how many students can be housed - the capacity number.  If the number reaches over 110% - the school board puts an enrollment balance in place.   A look at the enrollment and projections shows Homestead Wakefield was at 107% this time last year.  Projected to go up to 108% for the 2018 school year and hit over 110 percent in 2021.
“If a facility three years out is going to reach 110% utilization then that could impact development and the issuance of permits to build in Harford County,” said Brown.

Jahnigen said that looks like 31 kids per 5th-grade classroom, and that a solution has been to use art and music rooms as classrooms to increase capacity.  She's been bringing students to the meetings showing the concerns directly from the young sources like Homestead-Wakefield 5th grader Viraj Singh.  “We couldn’t fit everybody in a circle, we had 32 people in our class,” Singh said. “Also we have assemblies and I bet there is more people then there is supposed to be.”

Short term the school district can place relocatable classrooms, put in additions, or redistrict— the latter an option the school board and parents always want to avoid.“  Just make the school bigger, if we redistrict friendships can be torn apart,” said 5th grader Noah Jahnigen.

A new Homestead Wakefield is in the works, but how much it will cost is up in the air.  If the school was built in 2021 it would cost around $48 million - that's for all project expenses including design, construction, furniture, and contingency.  But that is subject to a projected 4% market increase each year as it is scheduled to be opened in the 2024-2025 school year.  By that time Jahnigen's kindergartner will be out and on to middle school.

So while they await the new school - the school’s principal Chris Cook and students are hoping for an upgrade on their 60-year-old playgrounds.  “They’ve got their sights set on they need new playgrounds and that’s what they want,” said Cook. “They are tired of what they have and they feel that they can do better.” 

“The 5th-grade playground that I use only has a few rusty swings and one slide,” said 5th grader Jack Green. “At recess, there can be anywhere from 90 kids to almost 200 kids,”  Brown said the cost to put up some new swings, slides, and everything else needed for a new playground is between $300,000 and $400,000.  Money Brown said is being spent on other parts of the capital program like roofing projects, electrical upgrades, and HVAC systems for the 54 facilities.

“We receive funding from the county executive and in the past, it’s been joint projects where we partner with parks and Rec and other community stakeholders to build playgrounds and replace playgrounds,” said Brown. “It’s been an initiative that given the fiscal realities haven’t really been on the top of our priority list with some of our other needs.”  

New schools and playgrounds take money and time.  While the school board fights for more of both from county and state leaders, the students and parents will keep on asking when the projects will get done.  “Sometimes in class when we have questions I raise my hand and the teacher doesn’t have time to answer everyone’s questions,” Green said.

The school district collects capacity numbers every year on September 30 and sends them to the county on December 1.