Charlotte’s crowded schools show why the county can’t keep stalling on school improvements

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Last week, I toured South Mecklenburg High School and Collinswood Language Academy — two schools that are on the list to receive bond money (if and when the bond is put on the ballot and approved by voters).

The County Commission has all but slammed the door on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ request for a bond. The message seems to be, “Just wait until next year.”

But why?

Sure, our public schools can wait, but they shouldn’t have to. They’ve waited long enough. 

In 2013, the County Commissioners approved a bond amount that was much less than what the school district asked for, “so it shouldn’t be a surprise that three years later, we have a need,” says Superintendent Ann Clark. 

Moldy and missing ceiling tiles have become the new normal in some buildings at South Mecklenburg High — buildings they hope will be replaced as part of the proposed bond package. 

SMHS-missing-tiles

SMHS-mold

For now, there are classrooms with windows that don’t open or heating and air conditioning units that don’t function properly. 

Several teachers remarked that they have become so used to the facility conditions that it’s difficult to articulate specific areas of need. “A lot of it isn’t even stuff you can see. It’s structural,” one teacher said. 

SMHS-D-building

The project proposals at South Meck aren’t just for newer buildings but also include gym renovations and bigger buildings — more classrooms — something that South Meck desperately needs.

According to last year’s enrollment and capacity data, South Meck has 108 classrooms (119 if you count mobile units) but 160 teachers. Put another way, the school has a calculated capacity for 2,111 students, but the school’s enrollment is about 3,000. 

Adding mobile units may alleviate some of the need for classroom space, but mobile units don’t solve the whole problem. 

“Your cafeteria, your media center, your auditorium, your multipurpose room, were all built with a certain number of students in mind,” says Clark, the superintendent. “As soon as you start adding these mobile units outside, you start stretching the capacity of a school in those common spaces.” 

South-Meck-patio-lunch

When it comes to overcrowding, though, South Meck is actually better off than several other schools in the district. 

Collinswood Language Academy, the other school I visited Monday, is a K-8 dual language immersion magnet. The school has a calculated capacity of 393 students, but the enrollment is over 750, putting them close to 200% of capacity. Crazy.

Lunch alone puts such a strain on the cafeteria facilities at Collinswood that the school has to serve lunch from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. to get everyone through. Worse still, their tiny cafeteria also serves as their multipurpose room, despite the fact that its occupancy limit is only 176. 

CLA-cafe-occupancy

Collingswood cafeteria

Collinswood has such a space problem, in fact, that the school has more mobile units than brick and mortar classrooms. 

Collingswood-mobiles-trailers

“We use space very creatively around here,” says Collinswood principal Jennifer Pearsall.

But teachers are still forced to make frustrating trade-offs. 

In band class, there’s not enough room for students to set up in the usual three rows with percussion behind them. “Everyone’s just on top of each other,” says music teacher Bridget Green, but that’s not even her biggest challenge in that space. “It gets so loud in here because the space is so small. I have a hard time really hearing them, which also makes it hard for me to teach them what to listen for.”

CLA-band room

Students can’t play a real game of basketball because the gym doesn’t have a full-length court. Nor is there a full-length soccer field on campus, either. 

Collingswood gym entrance

Collingswood gym

Collingswood soccer field

Collingswood basketball goal

“A building doesn’t make the school, but what makes me sad is there are opportunities our kids aren’t getting,” says parent Jen Rothacker. 

While at Collinswood, I met Rosie, a fourth grader, and her mother. Rosie’s mom told me that they were at Morrison Library one day and there was talk about some upgrades to the library building. 

Wanting that same kind of growth for her school, Rosie went and spoke to the school board. (Yes, you read that right.)

Rosie says that in mobile units, “when it rains, we can’t really hear our teacher.” And when I visited her classroom, students were three to a table, but the tables are so small that their teacher has – quite brilliantly – taped off boundaries for each student’s work space. 

CLA-4th-grade-class-pro-con-list

sections of desk

And yet, these mobile classrooms have become a staple of the Collinswood experience. “Five of their nine years, students will have homeroom in a mobile classroom. Over half the time they spend here,” Principal Pearsall says. 

Collinswood didn’t make the cut for money in 2013, the last time a bond came around, but this time they’re at the top of the list.

But with the County Commissioners holding the vote hostage, the needs of schools like South Meck and Collinswood will just keep waiting.

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Brittany Stone
Linguist. Fan of bookstore smells, hip hop, my backpack, and democracy. Freelance thinker. Beyoncé enthusiast.