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Crowding pushes city to expand Hugh Mercer

BY ROBYN SIDERSKY

When the Pepsi deliveryman showed up in Marylise Cobey’s classroom at Hugh Mercer Elementary with a cart full of sodas, his mouth dropped open.

The room used to be the teachers lounge, but now it’s the classroom for nine second-grade special education students.

“He came into my room and said, ‘What happened to the [vending] machine?’ No one had told him,” Cobey said.

Cobey and a few other teachers are in alternative classrooms because of an enrollment boom at the Fredericksburg elementary school.

From the end of last school year to the beginning of this one, the school grew by 58 students, said Principal Marjorie Tankersley. And the enrollment is only expected to increase during the next five years.

The City Council approved money for the school recently that should help relieve the problem.

When Hugh Mercer opened in 1968, the plan was for it to house between 800 and 825 students. Enrollment this year is 885 students.

That number is expected to grow to 927 by 2017, according to a presentation by Moseley Architects the School Board saw earlier this month. That’s 12 to 16 percent more students than the school was designed for.

The company conducted an architectural study of the schools on how the facilities will fare with the projected growth across the division.

There are 15 kindergarten classrooms, 13 for first grade and 12 for second grade, including three in trailers.

Each grade has increased, but kindergarten has grown the most, to more than 300 students.

Kindergarten students can’t be in the trailers—the units don’t have bathrooms and it’s too far for the students to walk to the nearest one by themselves. So, two other classes shifted around to accommodate a new kindergarten class.

Because of all the extra students, some teachers, such as Cobey, have been pushed into spaces that were not designed to be classrooms.

“There are people in much smaller spaces than I’d like,” Tankersley said, including “some very large closets.”

“We have made due, but don’t have any elbow room,” Tankersley said.

Cobey wasn’t always in the teachers lounge. She said for four years, she had a “regular classroom and it was lovely, big and spacious.”

With the growing pains the school has been experiencing, she knew the day would come that she’d have to give that up, and she did, voluntarily.

“My caveat is that it’s one of the larger small rooms,” she said.

But it’s not easy.

Her special needs students need a lot of space to move around, she said.

“We sort of have to keep repositioning ourselves, which is not something I would have had to do in my old classroom,” she said.

Because this year’s students have never had her in any other classroom, they don’t know the difference.

They do ask questions, though—about why they have to move around the way they do, she said.

In addition to the space issue, she’s not near the other second-grade classes.

“I’m not with my team, which can be hard at times,” she said.

ADDED STRESS

With the extra students, it puts stress on every part of the school. It’s meant hiring more teachers to keep classes small.

“The School Board and the superintendent made it a priority to keep ratios low,” Tankersley said.

Each class has 23 students at the most. That’s meant rearranging lunch and bus schedules to accommodate more students.

When there’s a school-wide assembly, the gym is packed.

“Specials”—classes such as physical education and music—are a concern.

“I don’t want P.E. to get shorter to accommodate more classes,” Cobey said.

‘THE SOONER, THE BETTER’

When the enrollment projections rolled in and Tankersley and the administration saw what they would be up against in the next few years, in addition to the growth this year alone, talks about expansion became more serious.

“The superintendent got on it immediately,” Tankersley said.

The expansion of the school wasn’t planned to happen for another four years, but the new numbers sped things up.

The study conducted by Moseley Architects suggested that it become the division’s top priority.

“The sooner the better,” is Tankersley’s attitude about adding on to the school.

The architectural study suggested adding eight classrooms and two resource rooms, along with a hallway and bathrooms.

The ultimate plans will be left up to the architect, said Robert Burch, the division’s director of operations.

NEXT STEPS

Fredericksburg’s school system got its first of two approvals earlier this month from the City Council for financing to pay for a 10,000-square-foot addition that will cost $2.5 million.

Of that$2.5 million, $1.1 million will come from the school operating and capital funds and $1.4 million will come from the city’s reserves.

The second reading of the appropriation and a public hearing will take place during the council’s 7:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday.11/27

If the project is approved, the school system would hopefully have an architect on board by the end of January with an eye toward hiring a contractor by early June, said Burch. Under that schedule, the groundbreaking could take place in early summer, he said.

Construction could be done while the teachers and the students are at the school, he said.

“Certainly we are looking to get in there as soon as we can, but at the same time you want to take your time and do it correctly,” Burch said.

Robyn Sidersky 540/374-5413

rsidersky@freelancestar.com

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