FREDERICK-Centerville Elementary School is so new that the road on which the one-story red brick building sits doesn’t show up on online maps and isn’t yet maintained by the city.
A class of kindergarteners listening to a story under the library’s vaulted ceiling was surrounded by stacks of extra chairs, rows of yet-to-be-installed electronic white boards and unpacked boxes.
The brand new school, parts of which are still under construction even as its first students begin classes, symbolizes the explosive growth of a once-rural county that has now been all but swallowed up by the Washington D.C. suburbs. And nowhere has the impact of that growth been as dramatic as on the school system.
“Fifteen years ago, Frederick was a rural, sleepy county,” said Elizabeth Pasierb, facilities planner for Frederick County Public Schools. “But as housing prices increased in Montgomery County, we became the next bedroom community for D.C.” Now, she said, neighboring Washington County to the west is “feeling the pressure from us.”
The Frederick County school system’s student body has increased by more than 25 percent in the last 11 years. Nearly 8,000 students have been added to the books since 1994.
As more people live in Frederick County and commute to the District, parts of the once-rural county now resemble a modern-day Levittown. Rows of townhouses have sprung up in the last decade, a result of the improvements made to I-270, the main thoroughfare between Frederick and Washington.
Holly Haupt, president of the Tuscarora High School Parent Teacher Association, said the majority of parents she knows commute – in fact, statistics show a third of Frederick residents drive outside the county for work.
“It creates a problem when you try to have evening activities for parents. Sometimes they can’t make it. Sometimes they are stuck in traffic.”
Eileen Tipperman, Centerville Elementary’s principal, said her school has a unique solution to that problem – an on-site day care center run by the YMCA. Parents can drop their kids off early and pick them up late if they need to.
Centerville has other amenities, such as a closed-circuit television studio, multiple state-of-the-art computer labs, bathrooms in each classroom, separate art and music classrooms, a parent volunteer room and a full-sized gym.
And along with the modern conveniences comes a new vernacular. The cafeteria is now the cafetorium, and the library is now a media center.
Still, there is one problem Centerville has not licked – overcrowding. When the school opened in August, it was slightly over capacity with 713 students.
The county’s board of education has set limits on school sizes. Elementary schools in the county can have no more than 700 students; middle schools are capped at 900; and high schools can be no larger than 1,600 students.
Pasierb said southern areas of the county, those closest to D.C., are experiencing particular strain on their schools.
Linganore High School, on the southwest side of Frederick city, is already at 135 percent capacity, Pasierb said. The school uses portable trailers to house the extra students.
Many of the county’s schools experience significant overcrowding and are unable to meet these limits. However, this may not affect the quality of education students receive.
“My kids have gotten a great education in overcrowded schools,” said Haupt, mother of a Tuscarora High School senior and two graduates of the school.
On the required Maryland High School Assessment exams, Frederick County students pass the biology, government and algebra tests at a higher rate than students statewide, according to statistics from the 2005 Maryland Report Card. However, their percentages lag somewhat behind those in Howard and Montgomery counties, long recognized as the best systems in the state.
Frederick County schools have one of the lowest drop-out rates in the state, as less than 1 percent of high schoolers drop out each year. Howard County students drop out at a rate of 1.44 percent, and Montgomery County students drop out at a rate of 1.76 percent.
Tipperman, starting her 17th year as a school administrator, said she has noticed changes over the years as the county has grown but she wasn’t sure any changes could be directly attributed to the growth.
“Many kids now come with extensive preschool experience,” she said. “Kids come very prepared for learning. Kindergarten is no longer just about socializing.”
County students’ access to technology has grown as the county has expanded. The entire system is Internet-connected and has been for several years.
“When I first came here, I was in shock that there were computers in every classroom,” said Haupt, who moved to the county from Baltimore County in 1994 when her children were in elementary and middle school.
In the years the Haupts have lived in the county, she said she has seen positive and negative results of the school system’s growth.
“What I like about the school system getting larger is that we’re not getting larger with just the same population we had before,” Haupt said. “I really like for my children to have a more multicultural view of the way the world really is.”
Of the nearly 40,000 students in the county system, nearly 10 percent are black, 4 percent are Hispanic and nearly 3 percent are Asian, according to the 2004 school report.
But along with the growth of the county’s affluent population have come attitudes somewhat foreign to a once-rural county such as Frederick. “I’ve seen more and more kids who have a sense of entitlement and do not show the appropriate respect to adults,” Haupt said. “Kids seem to be not as polite as they used to be, not as respectful of adults, and I think that can affect the educational process itself.”