BERLIN – Few people would dispute Berlin’s popularity in recent years. Since undergoing what the mayor refers to as a renaissance, the town is full of unique shops, dining establishments and the visitors who frequent them.
As more and more of those visitors decide to make the town their home, however, the local elementary school is struggling to keep up. Buckingham Elementary School, located on South Main Street in Berlin, has seen enrollment increase each of the last five years. The school, which was built in the 1970s, went from housing 456 students in 2014 to welcoming 541 this fall, a 19-percent increase.
“We’ve been growing,” Principal Karen Marx said. “People want to live here.”
That, however, means that class sizes at the school are growing. Parents made a point to voice concerns about the increasing class size during the Worcester County Board of Education’s public budget input session earlier this month.
“The Berlin area has experienced a relative boom in new housing construction,” parent Chris Palmer said. “In anticipation of our school’s increase in enrollment, we are requesting that our school be provided with additional trailers, furniture and technology.”
Buckingham already has five portable classrooms, or trailers. Marx says class sizes at the school range from 18 to 23 students.
“Under 20 would be ideal,” she said, adding that some elementary schools in Worcester County had class sizes below 18.
According to Chief Academic Officer John Quinn, the state recommends that class sizes in elementary schools be 23 students or less.
“We try to limit our size to 18 but that’s not an absolute cap,” he said. “It’s pretty rare that we exceed 18.”
Nevertheless officials know that students learn better in small classes.
“Research indicates the smaller the class size the more effective teachers can be,” Quinn said.
According to Vince Tolbert, chief financial officer for Worcester County Public Schools, officials do 10-year enrollment projections based on things like birth rates and population. Those projections are sent to state officials for review and are monitored by officials here in Worcester County.
“The facilities planner monitors projected enrollment annually,” said Steve Price, the school system’s chief operating officer. “He would monitor that along with the state department of planning to see if there needs to be any adjustment to the numbers. If that happens, then on the facilities side we’d work with our chief financial officer under the fiscal restraints we have to do whatever we could do to ease that situation.”
Officials said student enrollment is actually projected to decrease at Buckingham after this year.
“I know Ms. Marx has been concerned,” Quinn said. “She feels they have some space issues. They already have some portables in the back and she did see an influx of some students this year, but our operations side showed this is going to be a peak year for her … We anticipate her enrollment is going to start to drop some.”
Quinn pointed out that Marx currently had the ability to move teachers from one grade to another to deal with “bubble” classes, or those that were unusually large.
As principal, Marx says she’s simply concerned because she’s seen development in and around Berlin increasing. She referenced the new apartment complex under construction on Seahawk Road. She’s simply worried that new projects like that aren’t necessarily in the county’s projections.
“We see a lot of development going on which they don’t necessarily put into projections,” she said. “We wanted to start to get it on the radar.”
Officials said that if enrollment does continue to increase at Buckingham, the next step for the school would likely be another portable classroom. While the school is aging, it is not yet slated for replacement.
“It’s not currently in the five-year CIP (Capital Improvement Program),” Tolbert said.
Quinn stressed that the school system continued to make small class sizes at all of its schools a priority.
“Our small class size is one of the things that distinguishes us,” he said. “This was a commitment made long before I was here and one our county commissioners have been funding. It permits our teachers to really personalize instruction for our students, to try to meet all kids’ needs. We all stand committed to trying to preserve that and not trying to go down road of increasing class size to save some money here or there.”