published Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Hamilton County schools supersize to economize

Cumming Elementary School is in Cumming, Ga. The massive school once housed almost 1,300 students.
Cumming Elementary School is in Cumming, Ga. The massive school once housed almost 1,300 students.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

BY THE NUMBERS

* 1,002 -- Elementary schools in Tennessee

* 489 -- Average enrollment

* 42 -- Elementary schools in Hamilton County

* 496 -- Average elementary enrollment

* 508 -- Ooltewah Elementary current enrollment

* 1,100 -- Projected capacity of new Ooltewah Elementary

BIGGEST AND SMALLEST

Here are the five largest and five smallest Hamilton County elementary schools by enrollment.

Biggest:

* East Ridge: 858

* Wallace A. Smith: 829

* Westview: 758

* East Brainerd: 712

* Spring Creek: 690

Smallest:

* Birchwood Elementary: 125

* Lookout Mountain: 167

* Falling Water: 234

* Calvin Donaldson: 242

* Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts: 249•

• Does not include enrollment of students in grades 6-8

Sources: Tennessee Department of Education, Hamilton County 20th Day Enrollment Report

Poll
Are bigger elementary schools a good idea?

Ooltewah Elementary School is about to double in size. Dozens of additional teachers. Longer and wider hallways. Expansive lunchroom. Two full-court gyms.

And this is a model that Hamilton County plans to replicate. At some point all elementary schools will be about this big.

Officials argue that one school for 1,000 children is cheaper to build and operate than two schools for 500. But some education researchers say that savings comes at a high price because the more students in a building, the worse they perform.

While smaller schools aren't going away anytime soon, the move does mark the start of a shift away from the familiar neighborhood elementary schools that have been a mainstay of public education here for decades.

But places that have created big schools, like Forsyth County near Atlanta, say students can still find small pockets of belonging even in the most sprawling of buildings.

Set to open in August, Ooltewah Elementary will be the county's largest elementary when it reaches full capacity of 1,100 -- twice the size of the average elementary here.

With skyrocketing construction costs and strapped budgets, school officials believe schools this big make economic sense as they realize savings on utilities, bus routes, administrators and support staff by building more efficiently.

Doubling the size of an average school saves money on site purchase and preparation, architectural plans and construction bids. Ooltewah's $21 million school eventually will house more than double the 500 or so students who attend Orchard Knob Elementary School, which opened in 2008 at a cost of about $12.2 million.

"Our tradition of neighborhood schools goes back a long, long ways," said school board Chairman Mike Evatt. "But you have to look at it in today's dollars and cents."

Big schools, small touch

Schools as big as Ooltewah are still somewhat rare in Tennessee.

Of more than 1,000 elementary schools across the state, fewer than 20 enroll more than 1,000 students. The average Tennessee elementary has fewer than 500 students, according to Department of Education figures.

But in Georgia big elementary schools are old hat. The state has about 500 more schools than Tennessee and 700,000 more students. Georgia has 80 elementary schools with enrollments that top 1,000 students. Some elementaries even approach 2,000 students.

With its 710-foot main hallway and several offshoots of classroom wings, locals compare the footprint of Cumming Elementary in Cumming, Ga., to a butterfly, an octopus or an airport terminal. The separate wings allow kindergartners a safe haven from the fifth-graders in this giant building that once housed nearly 1,300 students.

And this is the norm for Principal Pam Pajerski, who has spent her whole career working in and running big schools like this.

Just a few miles away at Shiloh Point Elementary, Rebecca Johnson has another view on things. She has lived the transition from small to big schools. Now the principal at the more modern Shiloh Point Elementary, she's in charge of a complex schedule, 120 employees and six custodians that it takes to keep a school of more than 1,200 kids running smoothly.

Here, they've got logistical challenges like arrival, dismissal and lunch periods down to a science. Teachers say they can unload 16 or 17 cars a minute in the mornings. Johnson likens the school's organization to a perfectly choreographed dance. Some of the methods are modeled after the way crowds are handled at Disney World.

These schools offer a preview of how Ooltewah and future elementaries may look in Hamilton County.

Yet for all the logistics and planning needed to maintain order here, Shiloh Point doesn't feel overwhelming, rigid or institutional.

Teachers have worked hard to maintain the intimacy expected of an elementary school. Grade levels are segregated by wing. To build community, students are further divided into eight houses, modeled after the four houses in the Harry Potter series. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade belong to houses with ship names like Missouri, Victoria and Intrepid.

"It's not so much about the size of the school as it is the culture inside the four walls of the school," Johnson said.

Big school movement

The explosion of big schools has been decades in the making.

As the nation's population moved from mostly rural areas to urban centers, schools naturally grew bigger, mostly abandoning yesteryear's one- and two-room schoolhouse model of education. And about 50 years ago, some began to argue that big schools were actually better because, thanks to economies of scale, they could offer more specialized programs and classes that smaller schools could not afford.

But nowadays, small schools are in vogue, becoming one of the most popular routes of school reform. Big names like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have sunk millions into efforts in places like Chicago and New York that break up big schools, creating small schools or so-called "schools-within-a-school."

"There's been a long-term trend to move to bigger schools and it's not been to the benefit of the kids," said Herbert Walberg, distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and professor emeritus of education and psychology at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Walberg's research suggests a link between school size and student achievement, even when controlling for other factors like poverty. He said students become lost in big schools and that grade levels and subject areas can become isolated. He believes large campuses can lead students to drop out as they become disconnected.

"They're anonymous. People don't know each other," he said. "They feel alienated. It's like a big bureaucracy."

But many of those concerns center on middle and high schools, where students are more independent and switch between multiple classrooms.

"I think for most elementary students in particular, their school is their classmates and their teacher," said Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith. "And it doesn't matter how big the school is or how many other first-graders there are."

New challenges

To fill Ooltewah's new school, officials will redraw zones, bringing in students from Snow Hill Elementary and Birchwood Elementary, which closes this spring. And they expect more will arrive in the zone, as subdivisions and apartment complexes continue to pop up across that area.

Principal Tom Arnold said much will remain constant through the move. He's taking 25 classroom teachers with him and bringing Birchwood's seven classroom teachers on board.

With 136,000 square feet, the new school will present new management challenges. When full, its nine kindergarten classrooms alone will dwarf Birchwood's entire enrollment of 125.

"There are a lot of questions on what it's going to feel like," Arnold said. "Losing that personal connection with the kids is going to be difficult."

But neither the principal nor Ooltewah's school board representative have heard any worries from parents. Most say they're just happy to be getting a new building.

The current 50-year-old structure sits between banks, gas stations and fast food chains on busy Lee Highway. The new school, along Ooltewah-Georgetown Road, is surrounded by rolling farmland and new subdivisions.

Instead of one room that serves as a cafeteria, gym and auditorium, the new building will offer two gyms and an expansive cafeteria. Students and teachers will upgrade from boiler heat and window air conditioners to a geothermal heating and air system. And no longer will five classrooms and the school library be isolated in backyard portable buildings.

Even with all the new bells and whistles, Arnold wants to assure parents that his school's teaching philosophy will remain front and center at the new site.

The emphasis won't be on the bricks and mortar, he said, but on what teachers are doing in the classroom.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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