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School bursting at seams

Mary Hinds • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 9:58 PM

Carroll Oakland Elementary is a school with succeeding students, enthusiastic teachers and so little space classes are taught in every nook and cranny.

"We're just simply out of space," said principal Carol Ferrell.

She oversees the school, which educates students in grades pre-K through eighth-grade.

The original school was built in 1978 with 16 classrooms and a gym, library and cafeteria to accommodate the number of students attending at the time. Now, the school has 40 classrooms, students are learning in the hallways and teachers have offices in almost every closet the school has to offer.

With the school's core (the cafeteria, gym and library) built for less than half the number of students who now use it, the school is forced to arrange schedules accordingly.

"The first class eats lunch at 10 a.m.; it's more like brunch," Ferrell said. "For those students we have to switch up snack time to the afternoon."

The gym, the cafeteria, conference rooms and closets are doing double duty. The school band squeezes in practice in the cafeteria before and after classes have lunch. A special education speech class and an English as a Second Language class share what used to be a conference room divided only by a screen that does nothing to block noise.

"We have gifted students and in-school suspension in the hall," she said. "Not the same hall."

The most startling example of the school making due is the band teacher forced to store instruments in a gym bathroom and a gym teacher using the other gym bathroom as an office complete with a desk.

Despite the challenges of students and equipment crammed into the school like sardines, the teachers maintain a positive attitude and test scores reflect that.

"Our teachers are fabulous," Ferrell said. "They make due with what they have. They slap a curtain on it and do their best in hallways and bathrooms."

The principal said unlike some areas of the county that have experienced explosive and dramatic growth, the Carroll Oakland school population has grown at a slow and steady pace.

Mindy Evans is the speech teacher sharing space with the ESL class in a tiny conference room. She has a remarkable attitude for someone who is teaching special education students in a room where she is competing for their attention with the ESL class on the other side of a divider. She is also, evidently, a master of understatement.

"We're used to it," she said. "But it can be hard to keep them on task."

Carol Teel was all smiles as she laid out materials for her kindergarten students on a table in the hallway. Around the corner, a special education teacher has taken over a spot in the hallway outside the classroom for a speech class.

The school's library has the offices and testing centers in what used to be storage rooms. The library is so small and crowded that faculty meetings, moved there because conference rooms have been converted to classrooms, have to be done in shifts.

Beth Graves is the band teacher who appears to have the hardest part. She stores instruments in the gym bathroom, lugging them out in the morning and back in when school is done for the day. She has done the best she can to make it work, but the urinal is a challenge. She disguises it as best she can with a cloth printed with musical instruments.

"We tried to turn the water off to it, but the smell comes up from the sewer," she said, adding that, like many women, the urinal just makes her uncomfortable. "I can't look at it."

As for science labs, the school doesn't have have any.

"We don't have one," Ferrell said. "Our kids get the curriculum but not the hands-on experience unless the teacher purchases things themselves."

As the school tour came to science teacher Debra Salts' classroom she called out to Ferrell that her students' test scores had gone up 15 percent.

John Stephens' computer lab is used by every student in the school. He said more work and instructional materials are available on computer, but his students just can't be accommodated with the space and number of computers he has now.

"One lab is not enough," he said. "We get a lot of requests for more computer time."

Kathie Reynolds is the guidance counselor for the entire school, in her free time, she compiles food boxes for school families in need, runs the Angel Tree program, works with homeless students and oversees the Backpack Program, which sends food home with students for the weekend. Without her parent volunteers she would be overwhelmed.

The school's portable classrooms, which are actually trailers, form their own village-like structure behind the school with the pods connected by wooden walkways. The portables house second-grade students who have to travel into the school for lunch, gym and assemblies. That can be a bit of a challenge when the weather is cold.

"I wish you could have seen the frost this morning on the walkways," said second-grade teacher Julie Palmer, adding it's not unusual for teachers and students to slip on the wood when it is frosty.

Despite the tough conditions, the school is doing well on test scores.

"In the state on value added scores in math, our third- through fifth-graders ranked No. 52 of 1,035, Ferrell said, adding parents don't complain about the overcrowding at the school.

Given the tight squeeze and the upbeat teachers, it begs the question of how much these students could accomplish if they had more room and better equipment. Ferrell emphasized that she has no stance on the current debate about a new middle school vs. using the old high school as a middle school or expanding existing schools. She just needs more room.

"We're a little county school," Ferrell said. "We're a diamond in the rough."

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