Peer Pressure

At Anderson Elementary, students are packed into classrooms, hallways and portable buildings as educators struggle to manage a school with too many kids

Each school has a "lead teacher," a sort of mini-principal who is supposed to know the students and parents.

While the concept may work in theory, in reality it has been difficult to implement. The self-contained aspect of the mini-schools has been set up, but the variety among the schools that is supposed to be a feature of Anderson's charter hasn't developed as quickly.

The hassles of dealing with the day-to-day crises that emerge in such a large school have hampered efforts to get in place many of the curriculum and program features that are supposed to set each mini-school apart.

"It's going a little slower than I thought," Smith admits. "It's taking us some time getting the training in place for nine different schools, when we're trying to do things like just getting kids settled at the beginning of the year. I mean, we get here early and we stay here late and we just stay busy the whole time."

The "community of schools" concept is designed to let parents choose from the programs offered, choosing between, say, the multi-age school or the technology school. In reality, however, students largely get assigned to a school at the beginning of their enrollment; a parent who wants to change to another mini-school has to wait for a space to open up.

Space, of course, rarely opens up. Not only is the school filled to capacity, it buses hundreds of overflow students to other area elementaries.

"Our goal is to give parents choices," Smith says. "We've not yet been able to do that because of the overcrowding."

The bane of "overcrowding" is a constant refrain at Anderson, and at times dealing with it seems like trying to hold back the tide.

Last year, lunch hour began at 9:45 in the morning ("That was a crime," Smith admits). The only solution, building a second lunch line and adding tables, required taking over the gymnasium. All P.E. classes are now held outside -- unless it rains, and then kids fidget in class.

Art rooms and music rooms in the 35-year-old core buildings were long ago converted to regular classrooms. Where seven years ago there were five temporary buildings on site, now there are 21.

The temporary buildings swallowed up a parking lot; when teachers parked on the street, they blocked the automated garbage pickup in the nicely kept neighborhood surrounding the school. After resident complaints, school officials paved over the remaining open space on campus.

"Obviously, we've been growing into our problem," Smith says. "Each year we deal with it somehow, and then a little more growth occurs; then we deal with that and we get more kids and we deal with that. One day they were repairing the roof here and one kid came in convinced we were putting in a second floor."

The school got lucky when it came to playground space. Anderson shares a large city block with Hager Park; between funds from local residents and the city's Sparks Park programs, $80,000 has been raised to add playground equipment and a walking track to the largely empty park. Even though groundbreaking on the park renovation is not scheduled until this spring, the land is currently being used for P.E. classes and recess.

The park is usually deserted during school hours, but it is also unfenced. Although kids can sometimes be seen playing perhaps a hundred or so yards from their teacher, and near the neighborhood streets, Smith says the school has strict policies requiring teachers and supervisors to remain close to their charges.

During classroom time, a visitor to Anderson sees little effect from the massive student population. The classrooms, although they may contain more kids than allowed under state caps on student size, are airy, well-organized and decorated with the usual array of encouraging slogans and displays.

In a pre-kindergarten class for Vietnamese-speaking children, the kids have names like Amy, David, John and Jack, but English is only rarely used.

The signs are all bilingual: "We Love Pre-K/Chung em thich hoc Pre-K" reads one sign; another offers the story, in English and Vietnamese, of "little Bertha Bee and her brother Bubba Bee."

The apartment buildings in the southwest side of town, near Fondren, have long attracted Vietnamese immigrants. Smith says new arrivals are still pouring into the country, and although some of the Asians are from Laos or the Philippines, the majority of those at Anderson are Vietnamese.

About 9 percent of Anderson's student population is Asian, and as at most Texas schools with a significant number of such students, hiring people to teach is hard. "We still don't have enough Vietnamese teachers," Smith says.

A few doors down from the Vietnamese class, the language is almost exclusively Spanish.

It's a fourth-grade bilingual program for gifted and talented kids, and after this particular lesson (on how to add, say, three hours and 25 minutes to two hours and 50 minutes), English will be used more freely, says Tiffany Mike, one of Anderson's lead teachers and a tour guide for the day. But for the moment, when the teacher asks if the class wants to try another problem, the students yell "Uno mas!" or "Dos mas!"

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