Educators Face Battle of Bulging Classes

Record enrollment in South spurs new ways of teaching

Students at University High School in Orlando, Fla., lunch in three shifts, work in 44 portable classrooms, and clog the streets with rush-hour-like traffic jams before and after school.

"It's like running a small city," says Judy Cunningham, principal of the Spanish adobe-style school that opened its doors six years ago for 1,500 students but today has 3,500. "You're dealing with the issues of trying to fit more people into a facility designed to hold 2,000 and still maintain orderliness, safety, and some kind of sanity."

Orlando, one of the highest-growth areas in the country, is not alone. From Atlanta to Seattle, K-12 schools are overflowing as children of baby boomers enter the educational system in record numbers that are projected to continue for the next decade.

Although the jumps in enrollment are occurring in 33 states, the Southeast and West will face the brunt of the problem. The surge is straining many school districts - even those that are meticulously trying to plan.

The rising enrollments are due in part to the baby boom "echo" - children born to baby boomers - as well as increased immigration and higher birthrates among blacks and Hispanics. This year 51.7 million children are heading to public and private school, breaking the baby boomers' record of 51.3 million in 1971. According to the US Department of Education, 6,000 new schools and 190,000 more teachers will be needed to educate the projected 54.6 million students by 2006.

This school population explosion is already creating fresh demand for teachers, requiring school administrators to be more creative in handling large numbers, and testing how cash-strapped state and county governments find the money and space to build for the boom. Perhaps more important, the burgeoning enrollments have the potential to change the look, feel, and teaching methods of American education.

"We'll need to become a little more personalized and flexible in the teaching and learning process," says John Lammel, director of high school services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va. That might include creating personal progress plans for each student, designing more mini-schools within larger ones, and revamping the school day and curriculum. "Not everybody needs to sit in a classroom for 180 days," Mr. Lammel says. "There will be a greater demand for a different kind of preparation."

GWINNETT County, Ga., just north of Atlanta, is one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. Officials expect to have 100,000 students by the year 2000, up from 88,000 today. That requires building three classrooms a week for the next three years, says Sloan Roach, a spokeswoman for Gwinnett County Public Schools.

This August, the county opened Creekland Middle School, one of the largest middle schools in the country with a capacity of 2,300 students. County administrators had wanted to build two smaller schools, but growth and a shortage of money forced them to build big. But they say innovative planning has helped make size a small issue. Creekland will be five separate schools of 500 students under one roof, each with its own assistant principal.

Finding the funds and the land to build new schools is a major challenge for districts, particularly in California, a state expected to experience the greatest enrollment growth in the next 10 years (1 million students). Land in some parts of Los Angeles, for example, costs as much as $1 million an acre, says Mamie Starr, chairwoman of the California Coalition for Adequate School Housing. The coalition estimates the state has a $14 billion backlog of schools it needs to build or repair.

Like many states, California has had to resort to a variety of measures to deal with overcrowding. Portable classrooms, year-round staggered school schedules, and lunch periods that begin as early as 10 a.m. are common. Hallways that have been converted to classrooms and the elimination of athletic or academic programs also occurs.

Starr and others say the long-term solution is to build more schools. But voters are often unwilling to pass tax increases to fund construction. People look at the taxes they pay - from income to property to sales - and find the idea of one more increase unacceptable, Starr says. "Many people also have philosophical differences with public education. It's their way of saying, 'I don't like the school system, the principal,' ... not recognizing that what they're doing is really limiting the ability to handle kids now and in the future."

Moreover, high schools, which cost more and take longer to build, will be most needed. "Even if you said today let's build a new high school, you're two to three years away from it, so by then your growth has continued," says Ms. Cunningham, the principal in Orlando. The enrollments "have gone up much faster than anybody dreamed in this area. It makes it difficult because you have to play catch-up."

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