Getting there is half the battle for Sparta students

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:54

    SPARTA-For students at Sparta High School, getting there can be half the battle. Forget about the crowded and undersized classrooms for a few minutes. Now think about the time it should take Sparta students to pass from one area of the high school to their next class at the other end of the building. Township educators are telling students their four minutes must be time well spent. Sparta High School principal Richard Lio said an additional 130 students in the building from last year has put a cramp on the movement of students in between classes. "Students have to be aware of this," he said. "They really have to think ahead to be able to get from one end of the building to the next. These are some of the little things that people don't think about when we talk about class size." Stop briefly. Pick up books. Students have been warned. Don't be late. Move along, they have been told; to the next class, a common area or possibly the cafeteria, where crews are trying to accommodate more students in the same limited space and time. "My kids are great," said Lio. "The students see it's a little bit tighter, but they deal with it. My message to them is we'll plan for the future, but you focus on the present." After head counts made during the first month of school, officials report an additional 52 high school students than the 1,1180 that had been projected for the current year before late registration in August. Sparta assistant schools superintendent Kathleen Monks said an increase in class size raises safety concerns. She said a chemistry laboratory at the high school built to accommodate 24 students at six stations now houses 27 students enrolled in a course. "My immediate concern is running out of classroom space," said Monks, who joined the district in December 2004. "We can't just change the curriculum. We can change the amount of time a teacher can spend with particular students." Lio said the school was forced to dismantle about 30 computers to make room for classroom space. He said about half of those computers are now inaccessible along the perimeter of the library. Schools superintendent Thomas Morton said enrollment at the high school was expected to be up100 students from last year. He said those numbers represented 55-65 more students than projected by professional demographers hired by the school board last year. If the trend continues, the high school could be above capacity by at least 300 students in 2008-2009. "My goal is not to look to next year," said Lio. "We're OK this year. But, we're really going to be hurting next year. We've got to look at this internally." In March, school administrators and faculty presented a wish list to architects hired by the school board to develop plans for building an "ideal" high school that would address overcrowded classrooms and increasing student populations. The architects took their input and placed a $109.1 million price tag on construction of a 300,000 square-foot building behind the existing high school in Station Park. The estimates, based on New Jersey State Guidelines, do not include modifications to existing playing fields, allotments for furniture or the potential for increases in construction costs. "Our job is to say what do we need educationally?" said Lio. "We're not looking for the Taj Mahal. We're talking about basic facilities that we need to put into our design." The principal, who has worked through more than one expansion plan, understood that the $109.1 million would frighten any taxpayer. "That's our wish list," he said. "Now, let's see what we can pare down. Let's see what we can cut back." School officials were hoping to pass a referendum in December that would allow them to construct the new high school at upwards of $93 million, but the vote has been abandoned for now. Morton said that even if the referendum would have succeeded, some plan to address the growing student population needs to be in place by the 2007-2008 school year. Meanwhile, faculty and staff have been struggling to squeeze more students into existing classroom schedules. The high school's guidance director said a software package designed to ease course conflicts doesn't always make everyone happy. "You just can't give every kid what he or she want on his or her menu," said Stan Abromavage, who joined the district three years ago. "Sometimes it works, sometimes they have to take other options." Abromavage said the high school already has agreements with county colleges in the area to provide upper-level courses after regular school hours to free up classroom space. He said the college-preparatory courses could be used to fulfill requirements at Sussex County Community College or the County College of Morris. Students, though, must provide their own transportation. "It's not like we're trying to push them out the door, but we're saying here are some other things you might want to do," said Abromavage, "It does free up some space." "There's not enough time for follow-up questions; just ask and answers," she said. "There are more students who are not getting their academic needs taken care of in the time allotted." About 95 of the 270 current seniors have opted for early dismissal at 12:45 p.m. These students must have a grade-point average of at least 2.5 and 120 credits toward graduation. Abromavage said many seniors use the free time toward rest before after-school activities and sports or part-time jobs. Abromavage said without additional space or staff, he expects to soon see more than 30 students in each classroom offering college preparatory courses. "We're really at a crisis stage," he said. "If you hire additional staff, you have to find some place to put them. We've exhausted all of our options. Our teachers are crying because they don't have the time or the access."