Overcrowding in Schools
Overcrowding occurs when a school facility enrolls more students than it was designed to accommodate. Most schools identified as overcrowded are in areas where the school-age populations are growing fast, particularly in California, Florida, Texas, and Las Vegas, Nevada. Overcrowded schools is also a chronic issue in our largest urban areas - New York, Chicago and Los Angeles - as immigrant populations continue to grow and more public education options are made available. Charter schools and educational accountability dictated by the No Child Left Behind Act allow families to transfer students from inadequate schools to those with more successful educational programs causing imbalances within school districts. Some claim that school overcrowding would not be a serious issue if we restricted immigration and cracked down on illegal aliens. The long-term solution to overcrowding is to build new facilities and upgrade old ones. Taxpayers have funded a construction boom that reportedly improved the situation around the country over the last decade and proposed legislation at the federal level could help, but overcrowded schools may never fully be eliminated in our mobile society.
ACADEMIC TOPIC OVERVIEWS
Politics, Government & Education > Overcrowding in Schools
Overcrowding in public schools has been a challenge throughout the history of American education as school districts have had to adjust to meet the needs of growing or shifting demographics. A 1963 Education Digest article, written when the peak of the Baby Boom generation was moving through elementary school, reported that there was a shortage of 121,200 classrooms in the United States with half of those needing to be replaced and the other half to be built to relieve overcrowding ("Classroom Shortage," 1963). The issue resurfaced in the late 1990s and has continued since then, as the school-age population has bubbled once again and high-growth areas of the country have struggled to meet the demands.
Overcrowding in schools is a significant problem in areas of the western and southern U.S., which continue to experience rapid population growth with an influx of immigrant populations and from mobile Americans seeking jobs and warmer climates. The stress of overcrowded schools has been most disproportionate in our most populous state, California, which has tackled the problem with expansive initiatives, but many other states including Florida, North Carolina, and Texas are also struggling to cope. Las Vegas, Nevada, the fastest growing city in the country has, on average, opened a new school each month to deal with a fifty percent increase in the school-age population between 1994 and 2003 (Zehr 2006).
Major urban school districts throughout the country are also experiencing school-aged population growth. New York City, always a melting pot, has experienced a boom in its school-age minority and immigrant populations, but new educational options such as charter schools and the legislated accountability of the No Child Left Behind Act, Race to the Top, and Common Core State Standards have required juggling acts of school administrators as parents move their children from poorly performing schools to those with successful track records or more desirable programs.
For example, the A. Phillip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem, a model amidst failing schools, experienced major overcrowding at the start of the 2004-2005 school year as many new students enrolled to take advantage of its success (Watson, 2004). Most other major cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Houston can point to similar situations as they have struggled to meet the consequences of higher standards.
Crowding, Overcrowding & Overenrolled
When does a crowded school become an overcrowded one? Is there a difference? Probably not. Many would argue that any number of students that exceed the planned capacity of a classroom or a school building impact the quality of instruction and learning because of the stresses that it places on access to teachers and services, not to mention additional wear and tear on the facilities.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education conducted surveys of public school principals in 1999 and 2005 that quantified the extent of the problem nationally. Overenrolled, synonymous with crowded and overcrowded, is the term used in the study to define what occurs when the number of students enrolled in a school facility is larger than the number of students it is designed to accommodate, statistically defined as more than 5 percent of the capacity of a school building (National Center, 2000; 2007).
The good news is that data from the second survey from fall 2005 indicate that progress was made over the five-year period in addressing overenrollment at many schools. Principals in 1999 reported that 14% of their schools were overcrowded by 6-25% of capacity; the 2005 figures are improved with 10% overcrowded by 6-25%. However, 8% of the schools were overcrowded by more than 25%, unchanged over the five-year period. Another plus was that 40% of the principals in the 2005 survey indicated that they "anticipated that the overcrowding would be substantially reduced or eliminated within the next 3 years" (National Center 2005, p. 17).
A Sampling of Solutions
Although the data indicates some improvement, overcrowding is a real, day-to-day crisis in a significant number of school districts and the expedient overrides the long-term solutions. Most of the decisions on dealing with overcrowding are not dictated by national or state laws or standards but are decided at the local level. School boards and their administrators, down to principals and teachers, must deal with the fallout of overenrollment when they encounter it--often unexpectedly on the first day of class. When there are no seats for some students, principals look to what free space they have. Cafeterias, libraries, gymnasiums, and closets and other common spaces are pressed into service.
Budget-pressed school officials, caught in the push and pull of local politics, are often forced to find ways to pack more students into inadequate buildings. In New York, the teachers' union and parents claimed that the A. Philip Randolph Campus High School was overenrolled when it had 1,900 students, but school officials asserted that it could accommodate 100 more. The well-respected principal, with his track record of success, was confident that all would be well (Watson, 2004).
Although officials in some school districts squeeze pupils into crowded classrooms, the state of Florida has a found a way to penalize school districts that do so. Palm Beach County school district faced fines for overenrollment in four of its schools in violation of the state's class-reduction law, which capped class sizes scaled to grade levels ("Palm School," 2006).
The Florida class size law was approved by voters in 2002. Caps for grades are: K to 3, no more than 18 students per teacher; grades 4 to 8, cap of 22 students per teacher; grades 9 to 12, cap of 25 per teacher. It was reported that although the enrollment did not increase overall in the fall of 2006 in the Palm Beach County schools, "some faced a space crunch because campuses need more classrooms to comply with the law" ("Palm School," 2006).
Other creative short-term solutions that are used to diminish overcrowding are:
* Staggered scheduling,
* More lunch periods during a day,
* Different start times during the school day, and
* Variable start dates during the school year.
Online learning (also called distance learning) has also been considered in a number of districts. None of these, however, get to the heart of the problem.
The most popular interim solution to providing classroom space is to bring in portable buildings. Mobile buildings can provide more than adequate instructional space and are frequently used on a permanent basis by school districts to house special functions or programs. They are air-conditioned, which is not the case for many school buildings in northern climates. The 2005 NCES survey reported that 78% of those principals with overcrowded schools had used temporary portable classrooms, 44% had increased class sizes, and some (5%) had to resort to using off-site instructional facilities.
Regardless of whether a school must be expanded or remodeled or constructed, the long-term solution to overcrowding takes time. Planning and funding of new facilities often gets bogged down in local politics and issues can be debated for years. Money is always an issue as construction is costly and local taxpayers generally must pay all or part of the bill, usually by issuing bonds or raising taxes, and often with little help from state coffers....
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