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November 5, 2003

Dwindling Funds, Same Old Needs

Alan Imhoff

As we enter the newest round of budget hand wringing over too many requests and not enough funds, especially for new school construction, perhaps it is time to dust off the Future Growth and School Scheduling Advisory Committee Report, published May 2, 1995, for which I was a co-chair with Marti Rice.

For over 10 months, 14 committee members spent countless hours and held many public hearings on a number of alternatives; school design, alternative scheduling, school construction financing, curriculum and year-round education. The final recommendation was as you might suspect, “…is to build adequate school facilities for our students.”

However there was some merit in other potential suggestions that might help relieve some of the overcrowding.

I would like to take the liberty here to suggest a couple of alternatives that may help the elected officials of the school system and county government come to grips with, what in all likelihood will be, a long haul in securing funding for the capital improvement plans of school construction.

First, take a fairly easy way for high schools; add a fifth period to the day. In theory, this would give each of the existing nine high schools the potential to handle up to an additional 20% of classroom capacity. So a high school with a State Rated Capacity of 1,200 students could add up to 240 more students without physically overcrowding the building.

Keeping students to the required 4-period day schedule would allow for use of all the rooms during all five periods. If the need is not there for the full 240 students, just imagine the relief in individual classes that could be accomplished where there are now 30 to 35 students.

The schools are open past 2:30 p.m. for extracurricular activities, so utility expenses should remain about the same. With creative scheduling, there might not need to hire many new teachers. Management could remain the same with some flexible schedules.

That is one idea. Now for one really out of the box.

Suppose we structure our system to better fit the real world of today.

We start out by having Neighborhood Primary schools that are Pre-K through 3rd grade, supervised by an assistant principal. Developers could construct these smaller schools with leaseback arrangements to the school system. Constructed to blend in with the respective developments, most of those attending could easily walk to school, thus potentially saving on transportation costs. Emphasis is on small classroom sizes of around 20 students each.

Next comes 4th through 6th grade at our existing elementary schools, the big change is bringing the 6th grade back in; the reason follows.

Middle school will now consist of 7th through 9th grades and high will be 10th through 12th.

Thus, by re-assigning the grade structure, we can move the “9th Grade Academy” to more closely align with a better grade cohort, thus freeing up more high school space. Divide the 12 years of schooling by 4 building types and see what possibilities exist. Just think how many smaller Neighborhood Primary Schools you could build for the cost of one $50 million high school and probably never need another high school and maybe only one or two middle schools.

Sure, there are challenges and cost trade-offs, but no worse than resurrecting portables at every school. I believe if the powers that be are really serious about solving overcrowding with limited capital resources, these ideas need to be pursued from the standpoint of “how can I make this work,” rather than the usual “it can’t work because….”

Imagine combining the five period day with an academy concept. Let’s go even further out of the box. Let’s say, the City of Frederick financially supports the school system, along with some donations from the business sector, to build a new West Frederick Middle School off Butterfly Lane.

When completed Frederick High moves into the old West Frederick Middle School while renovations are done to Frederick High. The old West Frederick now gets renovated as well, to house the new four-year Academy of Technical Sciences.

This new Academy of Technical Sciences builds on existing programs from the Career Tech Center, such as the one for Finance; new ones for Information Technology and Biotech are housed in this renovated building.

If instead a full range Technical High School is envisioned to include all of Career Tech’s existing programs, Frederick High could support the remainder of curriculum by just having the students cross the quadrangle. No new sports facilities need to be built, class scheduling would be no different, just allow some additional time to walk about half a city block.

Who knows, maybe other high schools might develop similar concepts.

There are many other ways to address this issue of limited capital funding. What is lacking is the open dialog to find out what they are and the willingness to seriously find a way to use some of them.

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