Arlington district copes with crowded elementaries

They're better than Porta-Potties and old-fashioned outhouses, but the portable restrooms at three of east Arlington's most overcrowded schools are still outside.

The no-frills facilities at Johns Elementary School are a symbol of what happens when rising enrollment, tight budgets and finite space intersect.

Johns, at 1900 Sherry St., has more than 1,100 students and is more than 58 percent over its 693-student capacity. It has nine temporary buildings on its campus.

Atherton Elementary School, nearby at 2101 Overbrook Drive, has 11 temporary buildings and 1,196 students. It was intended for 831 students when it opened in 1977 and is now 44 percent over capacity.

Help is on the way. Arlington school trustees boarded a bus Thursday for a driving tour of 20 east-side elementary schools to arm themselves with the facts for the strategic planning process.

The tour was "primarily just to give them a sense of the overcrowding issues," district spokeswoman Amy Casas said.

An elementary school under construction at 2350 Sherry St. will open in 2013 with room for almost 900 students. That will put Atherton at 1 percent under capacity and Johns at 5 percent over capacity.

Johns and Atherton are the most extreme examples of overcrowding. Crow, Rankin, Goodman and Amos elementaries also have double-digit overcrowding, but Knox, Thornton, Hale and Remynse elementaries are under capacity.

Others elementary schools are only slightly over capacity, including Roark, Blanton, Burgin, Morton and Foster.

"We have nine schools in east Arlington that we're concerned about, and others that we're not worried about now, but will be in the future," Superintendent Jerry McCullough said. "All the buildings are in good shape. We just need more capacity. We will need new space for new programs."

Proposals considered

Trustees have several long-term options to ease the burden, Casas said, and they have explored a number of them.

Last year the school board took a detailed look at moving sixth-graders into all 12 junior high schools, making them middle schools with three grades. That move would likely come in 2013-14 at the earliest. A consulting firm that the district hired last year to find cost efficiencies also endorsed the idea, saying it would fill unused space at the junior highs while easing crowding in the elementaries.

It would also significantly reduce temporary classrooms on elementary campuses.

Officials said last year that one negative result of the move would be that 10 of the 12 junior highs would then exceed capacities. As of last fall, only Shackelford Junior High was over capacity, by 12 students. Expanding the junior highs would cost about $30 million.

Another idea floated by trustees last year was converting a number of empty retail spaces into early-education centers for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes. Such an arrangement could be cheaper than enlarging all the junior highs.

270 children outside

Overcrowded schools pose challenges for students and staff alike.

Tammy Rogers, who has been principal at Johns for 12 years, likes to learn the names of all her students. That task was reasonable when she came aboard, when the school had 750 children, but is difficult now, with more than 1,100.

"I don't know all my children like I used to," she said. "We enroll and withdraw [students] every day."

Temporary buildings house 12 classrooms, Rogers said, along with a counselor's office, an after-school program, a science lab and, of course, the auxiliary restroom.

About 270 children attend classes in the temporaries every day. Some fourth-graders are outside. The rest are inside.

"It's hard for them as a team to work together," Rogers said.

Two third-grade classes are outside; six are inside.

"You could possibly go to school here in a temporary through third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades," Rogers said. "When the tornado warning happened this past week, we had a lot of children to get into the building quickly."

Community leaders also want the overcrowding alleviated.

All options are viable to look at, and all have merit, said Luis Castillo of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

"One thing that always interests me is the feasibility of redistricting the boundaries of elementary schools," he said. "I think we can make a better effort of balancing those populations fairly and equitably. They should look at what is feasible and what is the impact of redrawing those boundaries."

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657

Twitter: @startelegram