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West Side school opened in 2011 already too small

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The state and Kanawha County Schools have devoted more than $30 million to two school projects for Charleston's West Side since 2009.

One school is more than 150 students above capacity, despite alleged warnings from community leaders. There are fears the other, a $21 million "school of the future," could be overcrowded the day it opens.

Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School 

The West Virginia School Building Authority spent nearly $9 million to help build the roughly $14 million Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School. Kanawha County closed and consolidated two schools when the new school opened in the summer of 2011: Chandler and Glenwood elementary schools.

Mary C. Snow was built to house about 375 students. That figure was determined using a variety of factors, said Mark Manchin, executive director of the authority.

The authority consults with local school systems and the community before it builds a school, he said. It also looks at enrollment trends in the area for at least the last five years, and consults the county's Comprehensive Education Facilities Plan. That's a 10-year plan that is intended to help local and state school officials predict facility-related expenses during that time frame.

Manchin said there was a great deal of planning that went into designing Mary C. Snow. Late Friday he said he had no idea there were more than 550 students in the building, and said the numbers don't make sense.

"Two hundred kids above what we built the school for? That's incredible," Manchin said. "In less than two years of opening the door, if that is indeed the case?"

He said he's met repeatedly with school and county officials since Mary C. Snow opened and has never heard there were any overcrowding issues.

Charleston-based architecture firm ZMM Architects & Engineers assisted in designing the school. Adam Krason, an architect with the firm, said Sunday his firm relies on the authority and local school systems to provide specifications for how large a school should be.

In the eight years leading up to the opening of Mary C. Snow in 2011, the combined student enrollment of Chandler and Glenwood never dipped below 369 students. The average combined enrollment was 407 students during that time period, according to data from the state department of education's website.

Enrollment skyrocketed at Mary C. Snow from the moment it opened: it had 478 last year and 546 at the start of school this year. The population is above 550 as of last week, said principal Mellow Lee. It's causing numerous problems.

"We do need a fix. We have way too many kids, and classroom size is huge: when you're talking about trying to teach students, it makes it very difficult to meet their individual needs," Lee said Friday.

Lee said long before the school opened she and other people in the community tried to warn those designing the building that they needed more space. Rev. Matthew Watts, a community organizer on the West Side, agreed. In an interview Friday, Watts said those in charge of creating the school ignored a few key factors.

Namely, he said they missed "the largest public housing upgrade in the history of West Virginia." He and Lee both said they thought building designers did not adequately factor in the revitalization of the West Side and its potential impact on enrollment.

Since 1999 the Charleston-Kanawha Housing Authority has spent more than $50 million in public and private funds on upgrades to public housing on the West Side, said Mark Taylor, the authority's chief executive officer. Three projects constituted the bulk of that spending: upgrades for the Orchard Manor, Littlepage Terrace and Washington Manor housing facilities.

 He said it is the largest upgrade in state history, but the number of units in these facilities has gone down with the projects. In 1999, there were 530 units between Orchard Manor and Littlpage, Taylor said. After the projects are complete there will be 389 units, he said. Before renovations, Washington Manor had 301 units. It'll have 162 once it's done, with 72 already allotted to "elderly" or disabled tenants, Taylor said.

He said the authority kept track of the number of people living in those units, but that data was not immediately available.

The revitalization worked to create a different environment on the West Side, something Watts and Lee said has encouraged people to move back to the area. Taylor agreed that people feel the neighborhoods are safer with the developments, and they're more interested in living in the area.

Jane Roberts, assistant superintendent for elementary schools, said there is an overcrowding issue at the school and that local revitalization played a part in that increase. She also pointed to the closing of local private school St. Anthony's, which brought a few dozen students to the school, something Lee mentioned as well.

Lee said she thought there were probably 50 to 60 students who lived on the West Side but chose not to attend Chandler or Glenwood. The brand-new school could have attracted those students and others to come to the area, Lee and Roberts said.

'School of the future'

After spending months preparing the design and site for Charleston's newest elementary school, construction is now underway. The $21 million school located in the Edgewood area on Charleston's West Side is to open in fall of 2014.

Tabbed as a "school of the future," open-area classrooms will allow for more project-based learning, group projects and presentations. Students who once attended J.E. Robins and Watts elementary schools will make up the new school's population.

The new school has faced funding issues almost immediately after the project got the go-ahead in April of 2010. Although the authority and Kanawha County Schools initially thought the project would cost about $12 million, massive site preparation expenses helped bloat that figure to closer to $21 million.

To try and control some expenses, the authority and county decided in March to scale back the size of the school. Krason, whose firm is also working on this school project, told the Daily Mail at the time the move trimmed about 7,000 square feet from the project, bringing the building size to about 52,000 square feet.

Although the Daily Mail reported in March the school would accommodate 400 students, Krason said Sunday the school was originally designed to house 435 students and that didn't change with the redesign.  

In the past decade the average combined enrollment for Robins and Watts is 429 students, according to state data. The combined population has been below 400 students once during that time period and above 435 students four times. This year's combined enrollment is 432 students.   

Enrollment capacity and building size are some of the most important pieces of discussion when designing a school, said Manchin of the school building authority. There is a planning phase before any construction begins where the authority gets input from architects, teachers, administrators and local community members.

He said he has been intimately involved in the design of the new school, and has never heard any concerns that the building might be too small.

"Since I've been here . . . we've never opened up a building where the day we opened it, it was too small. That has never happened," Manchin said.   

Henry Nearman is the current principal at Robins and will head the new school once it opens. Although he said he thinks it's too soon to start planning for more students than predicted, the swell in student population at Mary C. Snow has not gone unnoticed by him.

"If the trend holds true for what happened at West Side, then it's easy to anticipate the same thing happening at the second West Side elementary," he said Friday.

He didn't think the revitalization of the West Side would have the same effect on his school as it did at Mary C. Snow, because most of that housing is in the Mary C. Snow attendance district. However, he thought the appeal of a new school building with a unique curriculum could "pique people's interest."

Solutions

Officials are looking at a variety of options to alleviate overcrowding at Mary C. Snow.

Last Thursday, school and county officials met with representatives from Grandview Elementary School, also located on Charleston's West Side. The school has 246 students right now and would gladly take some from Mary C. Snow, said principal Michelle Settle.

More students would mean no split classes at Grandview-multiple grade levels in one room-and the potential for more arts and music lessons during the week, Settle said.

The county is looking to redistrict students living at the Orchard Manor facility from Mary C. Snow to Grandview, said Roberts, assistant superintendent for elementary schools. The county is also looking at moving a few pre-school programs to other schools in the area, Roberts said.

The redistricting would only shift about 40 students from Mary C. Snow. Combined with moving the programs, it would open up one additional classroom at the school, Lee said.

She hates to see any students leave, but there are few other options. The school already requires proof of residency for any new students, and it's forced to turn away families fairly frequently, Lee said.  

When asked what else could be done, assistant principal Beth Sturgill laughed and said, "You got a hammer? We'll start building."

Watts said the problem won't fix itself, but he's confident the school and county will find a solution. He also mentioned moving the special programs, and suggested the school might have to look at portable classrooms. Whatever the answer is though, he expects it soon.

"By July, I think there should be a concerted effort to get the population of Mary C. Snow down to 400 kids. Or under," Watts said.

Manchin repeatedly said the authority rarely sees rapid growth like that reported from the school. Although he said he wants more time to research the situation, he said it's possible the authority could work to find a "remedy" to the problem. He said he did not want to speculate as to what that remedy could be.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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