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Well before seven in the morning, when the winter sun is still far from rising, the first trickle of students heads to Anderson Elementary.
They wait outside closed doors for a half-hour or more, an ever-growing gaggle of kids. By the time the school opens at 7 a.m. or so, perhaps hundreds pour in for federally subsidized breakfasts.
The predawn patrol is only the first wave of what will become a tsunami of students overwhelming the small K5 school in southwest Houston. By the time school starts, every inch of the facility is packed with boys and girls.
There are no nationwide standards for how big an elementary school should be. Research cited by the National Association of Elementary School Principals says 300 to 400 students is optimal, but few urban schools these days are lucky enough to be so small.
In the Houston Independent School District, elementaries are likely to be twice as big as that 300-student goal. At least ten of HISD's more than 175 elementary schools have more than 1,000 kids in grades pre-K5 or pre-K6.
And then there's Anderson.
It broke the 1,000-student barrier more than eight years ago. Fueled by rapidly filled apartment complexes in the Westbury area, Anderson has seen its student population grow year by year until it has reached the point where now, on any given day, almost 1,600 children flood onto the constricted campus.
They cram into a facility where every open outdoor space is taken up by portable buildings or parking lots, where gyms and music rooms and art studios have been sacrificed to make way for classrooms or cafeteria space, where the hallways at dismissal time become choked with kids nearly bursting from the excitement of almost being free at last, where it can sometimes seem the art of teaching is overwhelmed by the mechanics of barely keeping the chaos organized.
The sheer number of students would present a problem even if they were all honor students excelling in a gifted and talented program. But Anderson attracts some of the most challenging types of kids: kids who are poor, some who barely speak English, some whose parents are baffled or intimidated by the school bureaucracy and shy away from participating in the educational process.
Districtwide, about two-thirds of HISD's students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program; at Anderson it's 90 percent. About a quarter of HISD's students are classified as having limited English proficiency; at Anderson it's closer to 50 percent.
The school offers bilingual classes in Spanish and Vietnamese. It has special-education students mainstreamed into regular classes. It offers "multi-age" classes where first- and second-graders are mixed together. There are pre-kindergarten classes for Vietnamese children with almost no English skills. There's a "parent center" where mothers and fathers can learn about the school and hear guest speakers on nutrition, discipline and other subjects.
There is, it's clear, a little bit of everything at Anderson. How well it's working isn't always necessarily apparent, but sometimes just herding 1,600 packed-together children through the day without a major crisis can seem like success.
Watching over everything at Anderson -- or at least trying to -- is principal Mark Smith, a fresh-faced 34-year-old Indiana native who grew up in a farm town whose population was smaller than that of the school he now oversees.
He's friendly but wary. Neither a reporter nor a photographer can go anywhere without an escort. Smith answers any questions, but isn't much for volunteering information or insight. In his careful formulations, there are no problems with, say, the PTO, or academic programs that are not yet developed, or a library that's not exactly weighed down with books; his harshest review of such conditions is a slight pause and an analysis that "it's getting better."
Smith has been given unusual freedom to address the conditions at Anderson. The school became a charter school this fall, so he has some flexibility in trying solutions without getting approval from the HISD bureaucracy.
And Smith, who's been at Anderson for seven years -- the last three as principal -- is trying a lot of things. Anderson's charter is for what's called a "Community of Schools," supposedly nine schools-within-the-school that will create smaller, self-contained units that will be less likely to overwhelm parents and students.
The schools range from talented and gifted programs in both Spanish and English to a "school of inclusion," where special-ed kids are taught in the same classrooms as mainstream students. The key, according to Smith, is that students within the subschool remain there, from kindergarten through fifth grade. The classrooms for the various grades of each mini-school are clustered together.
"When a parent walks in the principal's office here, the chances are we won't know their child, much as we wish that weren't the case," he says. "By setting up nine schools, we are saying, if your child is in this class in the first grade, then you know who your second- and third-grade teacher is going to be.
"We wanted to create a smaller-sized-school feel, even if we can't do it by changing the facility," he continues. "The ability for a student to recognize the adults in a school and the other kids means a lot. It helps you grow into a community.... Parents felt lost in this vastness, but now they can believe they belong to a school."