August 17, 2008

Overcrowded Sahuarita



Principal Mark Neish didn't have time on Tuesday to worry why Sahuarita High School is overcrowded. Neish and his staff had to focus on a more pressing issue - how to use a limited amount of classroom space to educate a growing number of students.

When classes began Tuesday, more than 1,400 students were expected to walk through the doors at the high school.

District officials projected earlier this summer that almost 1,500 students would attend this school year.

The high school's capacity is 1,250 students.

Officials will not know the exact number enrolled until the end of this week, Neish said.

"I haven't given that (the reasons for overcrowding) a whole lot of thought because I've been trying to deal with the issues we've been presented with," he said.

Those issues include lowering class sizes, especially in core academic classes, properly supervising all students and accommodating teachers who have to share classroom space.

Neish said the school added seven teachers, with hopes of lowering class sizes in its core classes, which include math, science, English and social studies.

Most core classes last year had class sizes that were above 30 students and some classes approached 35 students, he said.

"That's why with the extra positions devoted to core classes, we hope the numbers will be down this year," he said.

However, most elective classes will have more than 30 students in a class, he said.

To combat the space crunch, the school decided to use "rovers," or teachers who go from classroom to classroom to teach.

The school will use five rovers - two math teachers, two English teachers and one social-studies teacher, he said. Roving teachers will borrow rooms from other teachers.

Both roving teachers and teachers with permanent classrooms have their own issues to contend with this year.

Problems arise when class sizes force teachers to become managers, said science teacher Karin Rojahn.

"Students will complain because they need to talk to me about a problem and I can't get to them," said Rojahn, who also is head of the science department.

Neish and his teachers are not the only ones who will face challenges this year.

Parents and students will have to adjust to roving teachers, crowded classrooms and an increasing number of the students who surround them.

Here are some of their stories from the first day of school.

Roving teacher learning life of hallway vagabond

Chris Sargent showed up at Sahuarita High School this week with a full backpack, looking to familiarize himself with the surroundings.

This is Sargent's first year at Sahuarita, but he's not a freshman who's trying to learn the ropes.

Sargent is a world history teacher who will have to teach five classes in four different classrooms and carry most of his materials on a cart.

Sargent is one of the school's five roving teachers who will have to share space and equipment with other teachers.

"I was actually given a cart yesterday, but it was in pieces," he said. "I was making copies, trying to get familiar with the teacher's classroom and getting familiar with the technology and the whiteboard."

Not having his own classroom means Sargent won't be able to customize his own room or post his class rules on the walls.

"I'm going to give them a syllabus, but it's not up there every day to refer to, like 'here's rule three,' " he said.

Nonetheless, Sargent said he expects his classes to run smoothly as the year progresses.

"Once we get started, I'll be fine," he said.

Patient assistant can't handle all the questions

Thirty minutes before the 8:30 a.m. bell rang in a new school year, a steady stream of students, some with their parents, gathered at the Sahuarita High School front counter. Administrative assistant Robin Karnas, dressed in black slacks and a blue blouse boasting a yellow "S," patiently answered a volley of questions.

"She's in the parking lot, sweetie," she said to one student. "No you can't go through that door," she told another. She told most students to go to the cafeteria for their class schedules.

But she couldn't help everyone. More than once Karnas politely apologized to students or parents.

"It's kind of sad," she said later when the office was relatively quiet. "I'd like to do that extra thing people need. But the sheer numbers don't allow it."

Spanish class quandary: 32 students, 30 chairs

When Jordan Duggan sat in his Spanish class on Tuesday, he felt like everyone was looking at him.

Duggan, 14, did not do anything to draw attention to himself, but he was one of only two students who could not sit at one of the desks in the classroom.

Instead, Duggan and the other student sat at a table in the corner of the room as teacher Mariela Ramos taught her class.

Ramos said she had 32 students in the class and only 30 chairs. She expected to have 36 students.

Duggan's Spanish class experience was just one snapshot in the life of a freshman who's trying to find his way on the first day of school.

"Not knowing where everything is and all the new teachers, I don't know any of them," he said.

Crowded classes make it hard for students to get attention when they need extra help, he said.

"There's not enough individual help and you have to share textbooks because it's really cramped," he said.

Transfer encounters scheduling difficulties

It's approaching midmorning at the high school, but Travis Hale has not made it to his first class yet.

Instead, he and his mother, Beverly Hale, are sitting in the school library with a counselor, trying to finalize Travis' schedule.

The Hales moved to Sahuarita from El Paso more than a month ago, but they are not bothered by the overcrowding or the delay in receiving Travis' schedule.

Beverly Hale blamed the mishap on Travis' previous school in El Paso.

"The other school didn't want to send our transcripts and the computers here went down," she said.

Beverly Hale was satisfied with the service she received from the high school's staff.

"They all seem to be very nice and cooperative," she said.

She did have one beef, however.

"The traffic this morning was hell," she said.

Navy ROTC class a haven from madness outside

While the rest of the high school campus buzzed with activity on the first day of school, sophomores Ryan Zelazny and Adriana Woletz sat in the peaceful confines of their morning Navy ROTC class.

The class had a half dozen students and most of them knew each other, the students said.

The two students, however, were still aware of the long lunch lines, new faces and crowded classes that awaited them later in the day.

Zelazny, 15, said he wasn't too worried about the pressures that arise from the first day of school, but some of his friends had stressed themselves out.

"A lot of my friends are freaking out, wondering 'what am I going to wear,'" he said. "It's not too big of a deal. A lot of it is just fitting in."

Woletz's biggest concerns included finding her friends in the large crowds and waiting in long lines, especially for the bathroom and for lunch, she said.

"Everybody loves the Mexican food, pizza and snack bar," she said. "You have three huge lines to try to get what you want before they run out."

With overfull PE classes, having a big gym helps

Inside the gym for first period, teachers Scott Boyter, Beth Kennedy and Joe Rieman welcomed their new students.

The students broke into three sections on the bleachers. Boyter stood in front of his group and said: "As you can see we have a large class. We might adjust and move some of you."

Boyter, a fourth-year PE teacher, had a class roster of 50, longer than the other two. He said 50 is not unusual, but his class will be thinned out as students are moved to other classes.

Still, the overcrowding weighs heavily on the staff and students.

"Just the use of equipment is crazy," said Boyter, who also coaches the boy's varsity basketball team.

Rieman said the PE teachers are not too worried about the large numbers of students.

"We adapt pretty well," said Rieman, head of the PE teaching staff. "We're blessed with a big gym to work with."

Kennedy previously worked at Palo Verde Magnet High School in Tucson, which she said is similar in student size. But the Tucson school has a larger staff, she said.

"Smaller school districts get less money than the larger districts," Kennedy said.

Computer crash makes scheduling a nightmare

Toward the end of first period, more than 70 students sat in the library. Some whispered to each other. Others read or played computer solitaire. Most, however, sat with bored or impatient expressions on their faces.

They didn't have scheduled classes. The computer system crashed the night before classes began. It left these and other students, and their parents, frustrated.

"It probably was an overload," said Lynda Robinson, a school counselor.

Robinson and other staff members were equally frustrated because they had to deal with unhappy parents and unfinished work. In the first hour of the first day, more than 1,000 changes were manually made to students' class schedules, Robinson said.

"Trying to find classes to fill kids in them is crazy," she said. "Everybody is working as fast as they can."

Finding classroom space is crazy as well.

This year an open classroom in the library was converted into a permanent classroom, says Nanci Kondrat, the school's librarian. Even part of her office was transformed into a classroom.

While library circulation numbers are up because there are more students, Kondrat said the library has an insufficient number of working computers. Teachers must reserve the library's computer lab at least two weeks in advance, added Kondrat, who has taught for 35 years in the district.

The intimacy of a small, rural school is long gone, she ruefully said. Overcrowding is the new order.

"This year I'll feel it more," she said.

Shared books, and not enough time for lunch

Elizabeth Herrera and Josh Dietrich, two seniors, waited in the library to obtain their class schedules.

Herrera, 17, said some of last year's overcrowded classes didn't have enough books.

"We would have to sit with a partner and share a book," said Herrera.

At lunchtime some students didn't get their food. Lines were long and time ran out.

"People would try to cut in line because they didn't want to wait," said Herrera.

Dietrich, 17, became a Sahuarita Mustang last November when his military parents moved from Indiana. He said his former school, while smaller than Sahuarita, is similar because both are overcrowded.

"I like this school because it has more open space but it feels pretty much the same," he said.

Overcrowded classrooms seem to feel hotter and it's harder to concentrate because of the talking, Dietrich said.

Long lines are another reality of school life. "There's plenty of waiting," he said.

While overcrowding is evident, Herrera said it didn't affect her last year. Monday she began a new year with a different experience.

"I thought I was going to have my class schedule," she said.

School nurse already familiar with students

Most teachers saw their students for the first time on Tuesday, but Aracely Avalos, the school nurse, got a head start.

Avalos started seeing students almost two weeks ago as she updated immunization records and filed paperwork for student physicals.

Avalos said that almost 1,500 students stopped by the office over a span of a week and a half .

"Every single student had to come through because all immunizations had to be up to date," she said.

Avalos survived the week and she helped students on the first day of school with a variety of ailments, ranging from foot blisters to stomach illnesses.

Not a lot of students claimed to be sick on Tuesday, but she expects that to change as the year advances, she said.

"On the first day of school, kids don't want to be sick, but I imagine as the days go by, we're going to be full in here," she said.

More tales from the first day of school on Pages 12 and 13

High school site update

The Sahuarita Unified School District is in desperate need of a second high school. But the district has encountered a variety of obstacles, including lack of state funding and disagreements with the funding agency, the state School Facilities Board .

To find solutions, the district wants suggestions from the community on accommodating the overcrowding.

The district will sponsor community forums this fall and present several options to the public, ranging from implementing schedule changes in the high school to using bond money to buy a site and begin construction.

A date has not been set, but officials hope to have a forum in September.

Options include moving to a year-round, multitrack schedule. Another option involves switching to double sessions, which would allow half of its students to attend in the morning and half in the afternoon.

The district also has between $3.5 million and $4 million in bond money to contribute to a new high school.

* Contact reporters Jamar Younger at 434-4076 or jyounger and Ernesto Portillo Jr. at 807-8414 or eportillo


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