Crowded East Hamilton school faces rezoning

Crowded East Hamilton school faces rezoning

August 11th, 2011 by Perla Trevizo in News

Middle school students gather in the gymnasium during the first day of school at East Hamilton Middle/High School early Wednesday morning.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.


East Hamilton School enrollment by grade:

Sixth: 327

Seventh: 313

Eighth: 333

Ninth: 300

10th: 311

11th: 302

12th: 227

Source: East Hamilton School


2,113: Number of students at East Hamilton School

1,650: Building capacity

500: Total number of new students that were anticipated districtwide

Source: East Hamilton School

Rezoning is no longer just an option for East Hamilton School, it's something that needs to be done as soon as possible, school system Superintendent Rick Smith says.

Every year since the middle-high school opened in 2009, East Hamilton has had more students than projected. This year is no exception.

"We are up about 275 to 300 [more] than we were last year," said East Hamilton School Principal Pam Dantzler.

Smith said the school's ever-increasing numbers force the system to do something.

"I think the initial plan that's going to have to be looked at is rezoning," he said. "You've got to do something to help in the short term while you make plans to do whatever is reasonable to do in terms of building."

When the school opened, it was designed to help with crowding at Ooltewah Middle and High schools and was projected to have 1,300 students, said Dantzler. Instead, it had 1,609.

In its second year, it was supposed to have 1,700 but had 1,850, she said.

As of Wednesday, the first day of class for the 76-school Hamilton County system, East Hamilton School had 2,113 students -- 463 above the building's capacity.

The result is more crowding and adjustments affecting everything from lockers to lunch.

The school, which houses grades six through 12, has 10 lunch periods this year, up from nine last year. Lockers are in short supply; the campus has only 1,900. Some teachers must share classrooms. And the school must use 17 buses this year, up from 14 last year.

"We have two very large schools housed under one roof," said Smith. "If plans were developed today to build something else out here, it would take some time to do that."

The school board discussed the idea of a new school last spring, but it's now time "to get past the discussing stage and into the implementation stage."

Overall this year, Smith said he expected to have about 500 more students districtwide. There were about 42,000 students on Wednesday, he said, but that figure probably will go up in the next five to 10 days as latecomers register.

The system hired 45 new teachers to accommodate the growth, but if enrollment is higher, additional hiring might have to be done, he said.

First-day buzz

At East Hamilton, hundreds of students with color-coded schedules -- yellow for sixth-graders, blue for seventh, pink for high schoolers -- filled the halls on the first day of school.

High school students were on one side, middle schoolers on the other, separated only by a wide hall. Their voices became a background rumble as if a swarm of bees was buzzing through the halls.

Having more students slows the navigation through the school's halls, said Eddie Gravitte, one of the high school's assistant principals.

"With over 2,000 students, the building is going to be more crowded," he said.

The school, located off East Brainerd Road in the eastern part of the county, serves an area where growth is a given. With new subdivisions going up and the arrival of companies such as Volkswagen and Amazon, East Hamilton and nearby Westview Elementary School are expecting continued growth, according to Dantzler.

Most classes at East Hamilton approach the maximum numbers allowed by the state, from an average of 35 for high school to 25 for sixth grade, said Gravitte. Most grades, except for seniors, have more than 300 students, he sad.

Jennifer Casey, 11, was happy to start her first year in middle school, but at the same time she was nervous.

"It's kind of scary but I'm excited, too, because you get to have lockers and there's just more people," she said.

Amid the excitement there were still worries about making new friends and who she was going to sit next to during lunch. It is up to teachers such as Jennifer Casey to make sure students such as Jennifer get acclimated.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith speaks to the media in this file photo.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith speaks to...

Photo by Jenna Walker /Times Free Press.

"We grow and grow and grow every year, but every year we are prepared for every group that comes in," said Casey, a sixth-grade science teacher.

The staff makes the "gigantic building feel very small day to day," said Dantzler. "If you go through the building everyone is in class, the halls are quiet. We only notice [the large number of students] when we bring students together in large groups."

For a student transferring from a small private school, the change can be daunting, but it has its advantages and disadvantages, said Trevor Higgins, a senior who transferred to East Hamilton from David Brainerd Christian School after it closed in 2009.

One of the advantages, he said, "is that you can say you are in the biggest school, it has a lot of programs, a lot of things being offered," he said as he headed to math, his first class of the morning.

The disadvantages?

"You don't have as much freedom. Everything has to be kept a little bit tighter because of how many people there are," he said.

And if students or parents are driving to the school on East Brainerd Road after 6:45 a.m., odds are it will take them about 20 minutes to get to campus, said Gravitte.

But for Rita Morson, who has a daughter in 10th grade and a son in 11th, the first day of class went smoothly.

"Surprisingly, traffic was better than I thought," she said.

Connect with the Times Free Press on Facebook