Fast times at Delaware Valley High

| 29 Sep 2011 | 08:33

    The school district juggles students and schedules to maximize space in the high school,By Sarah DiLorenzo Schools in the Delaware Valley District expect to add between 850 and 1,500 students to their current 5,684 over the next five years. According John Wroblewski, a member of the board of education there, the high school is already “maxed out.” As a result, the system has decided to keep the sixth grade in the elementary schools next year in order to ease overcrowding in the high school. While this creative planning will solve the problem next year, the school system is looking for a more permanent solution. The district is not alone. Schools in Sussex County, N.J., and Orange County, N.Y. are also seeing high growth, as commuters move farther from the cities and developments crop up to accommodate them. In those counties, many school districts are holding classes in auditoriums, libraries and cafeteria, while they struggle to convince their residents of the wisdom of capital improvement projects. “An odd area” In Pike, Michael Mrozinski, a county planner, said that the building of subdivisions in the 1960s and 1970s caused the population to skyrocket, after over a century of stagnation. The county’s population broke 10,000 in 1970 and now sits at 56,337, according to a 2005 survey. The schools began to feel that growth in the 1980s, according to Superintendent Dr. Candis Finan. A high quality of life and relatively low cost of living in addition to Pike’s proximity to New York and metropolitan New Jersey has fueled this growth, Mrozinski said. “It will taper off as we start to see a build out scenario,” he said, which should happen when the population reaches 151,000 to 153,000, according to current zoning laws. Finan said that it was not enough to know how many people were moving into the county, but also how old their children were. In recent years, most of the growth in the schools has happened at the high school level; she guessed this was the result of higher house prices that forced families to wait until they had more money, and their children were older, to move in. Finan also wonders what effect rising gas prices will have on the county’s population. “People don’t work here; they live here,” she said. “We have an odd area.” If Boeing were to move in, Finan supposed, and hire 500 people, she could fairly easily figure out how many children those 500 employees would yield. In reality, though, less quantifiable factors draw people to Pike, like proximity to water and easy access to metropolitan areas. Since it isn’t jobs that tie them to the county, many residents leave just as quickly as they came. And as the cost of commuting soars, Pike County may cease to be the attractive haven from city life it once was. Finan also mentioned that rising electrical costs in parts of the county might drive people away. In short, the number of people coming over the bridge is unlikely to stop, but how long they will stay is much less predictable. A mobile student body While nearby counties are experiencing similar growth, Pike’s is different from Sussex’s and Orange’s in one important way: The high immigration is accompanied by significant emigration. Why does mobility matter, if the district knows it can expect a net increase of students overall? A high mobility rate in the schools makes planning very difficult. Most districts can fairly confidently predict their future high school enrollments by looking at their current middle school enrollments: For the most part, the eighth grade moves to the ninth grade. Not so, in Delaware Valley, where mobility weights the growth toward the high school. This influx of students in upper grades prompted the district’s decision to keep the sixth grade in the two elementary school buildings, starting next year. Shohola Elementary is currently completing a “garden-level” basement renovation for $1.47 million, which will add 10 classrooms. At Delaware Valley Elementary, a more minor renovation this summer will rearrange classroom space by moving walls to allow the school to keep its current fifth-graders. Finan explained that it was easier to cope with a surplus of students in elementary schools, where music rooms and art rooms could always be commandeered for classrooms, sending arts teachers into individual classrooms to do their instruction. In secondary schools, however, more specialized classrooms are necessary, like science labs. At the high school, the shuffle will free up five classrooms, and while Finan thinks that switch will suffice for the next two to four years, “it’s not going to be roomy” at the high school, she said. A number of teachers will continue to move from room to room with their materials on a cart. The district is curently negotiating the purchase of land to build another school, probably an elementary or K-8 school, which is cheaper than a high school to build. The thinking is that Delaware Valley Elementary, a 55-year-old building, might then be renovated to accept spillover from the high school. Keep on keepin’ on It’s not all doom and gloom, though. “Growth brings challenges,” Finan said, “but also opportunities.” The increasing enrollments have forced the district to hire more teachers. They hired about 14 for this school year and will bring on 10.5 new teachers next year. Not all of those hires are for growth; some are replacements, and some are to increase the options offered to students. But, without the growth in the student population, the possibility of increasing programming would not have existed. “With growth, we have the opportunity to offer more programming, like Advanced Placement music,” Finan said, and to expand other advanced programs. Of the 3.5 new math teachers hired for next year, Finan estimated that 1.5 were to handle the increase in students, and the other two were to strengthen the department. So far, by juggling schedules, shuffling rooms and hiring teachers, the district has managed to keep class sizes fairly constant, around 23 to 25 for younger elementary school children and not more than 27 for the fourth through sixth grades. In the high school, though, class sizes have been harder to control because the resources are more strained and because of the nature of secondary school scheduling. She said the school starts the year with classes between 25 and 30, but as students drop down or move up a level, some classes might exceed that ideal 30-student cap. Between land purchase and permitting, proposing a referendum and construction, Wroblewski estimated that building a new school takes at least five years. Finan is confident the school system can cope until then. “There are ways to make classes that are, maybe not optimal, but are conducive to learning,” she said. In the meantime, the school continues to monitor the growth of the area and figure out how best to react to it. Will it taper off as gas prices rise? Will it continue to rise until the county is “built-out”? As Leonard Elovitz, a demographer, said, “There’s no crystal ball.”