Filling up our schools

As long as Rock Hill schools can maintain a reasonable student-teacher ratio, we see no problem with allowing schools to fill to capacity.

Members of the school board agreed at a Saturday retreat to set aside the philosophy that a smaller school population enhances the learning environment. Instead, the board will allow schools to accept all the students the building will hold -- as long as class sizes remain small.

Superintendent Lynn Moody explained that avoiding another bond referendum in the immediate future was one of the prime motivating factors in this decision. District officials believe they can postpone a bond election for the next few years by letting schools fill up.

That decision will have a bigger impact on some schools than others. For example, Castle Heights Middle School now has 886 students but has room for 1,150. Belleview Elementary, on the other hand, now has 584 students but has space for only 600. And some other schools already are bursting at the seams and are using trailers to handle the overflow.

But allowing school populations to grow is likely to put more pressure on teachers and administrators. District officials said more teachers without classrooms of their own might have to travel among schools. And administrators will have to work harder to ensure that they maintain communication with parents.

The school board also will have a logistical challenge. Schools will have to be constantly monitored to ensure that they don't become overcrowded. As some schools fill to capacity, attendance zones may have to be redrawn to channel students to schools with more space, which never is an easy process.

But we can't envision the district mounting another school bond campaign while many schools still have room for more students. Voters are more likely to approve bonds for new schools once the existing ones are at full capacity or close to it.

The district projects that many elementary schools will reach capacity by 2011. The first middle school could be full by 2013, and the first high school could fill up the following year.

But those are just estimates. If population growth surges faster than expected, schools could approach capacity sooner.

If so, a bond election could come sooner as well. The first priority is ensuring that classes remain at a manageable size and that schools have enough room to meet all their essential needs.

The district shouldn't wait until schools already are overcrowded to act.