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."
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!"
Almost half of Anderson is Hispanic; about 40 percent or so is African-American.
"It's kind of fun to watch the kids come in in the morning, it really is a true melting pot," Smith says.
As a tour continues, other classes, even those in the portables, seem to be coping well with the situation.
A regular third-grade class learns math; when kids finish their work sheets they scramble for time at the single computer.
The hallways are largely empty, except for the roaming arts and music teachers pushing their carts from class to class like street peddlers. Librarians, too, trundle through the halls with book-laden carts, because shuttling classes into the library -- where perhaps, a curious student might stumble onto a new area of interest -- would be a logistical nightmare.
The library itself isn't exactly overwhelmed with books. Smith says that many of the older books, "which students didn't want to read anyway," were given away when the school began to convert to a computerized catalog system. "That way we wouldn't have to enter them into the new system," he says. "The collection now is somewhat petite, but it's what we wanted to keep, and it's getting bigger," he says.
The (very) guided tour of Anderson may be misleading, though. A reporter who visited the school later found two voice-mail messages on his phone from callers saying they were Anderson teachers.
"We were warned not to speak with you in a meeting a week before you came," one said. "They told us to put our best foot forward and to be on our toes. While you were in one of the best classes, meanwhile other teachers have kids running up and down the hallway. You have 46 kids in one class with a single ancillary teacher; you've got students beating up other students."
The second caller simply says that teachers are constantly struggling with overflowing classes, inadequate supplies and kids who can get unruly because there aren't enough staff to supervise them properly.
Neither caller leaves a name or number.
Test scores at Anderson illustrate the problems teachers face. In every grade tested for the past two years, Anderson students have scored lower than the rest of the HISD in reading and math.
The TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) results for 199697, for instance, show 49 percent of Anderson third-graders "meeting minimum expectations" in math; districtwide, 75 percent of third-graders do so. Fifty-nine percent of Anderson fourth-graders meet minimum expectations for reading; districtwide, the figure is 82 percent.
Under Texas Education Agency guidelines, Anderson's performance is labeled "acceptable;" that's higher than "low-performing" but below "exemplary" or "recognized."
Smith acknowledges that things don't always run smoothly at the school. Amazingly, despite its massive size, it wasn't until last year that the school received a third assistant principal. (The national principals' group recommends an assistant principal for every 400 students.)
"That's really been a great help," he says.
Just getting all those kids into and out of the bathrooms, or fed, or to the park and back without disturbing the rest of the school can be a challenge.
The second lunch line has improved dining times somewhat -- the lunch "hour" now only lasts from 10:50 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. -- but the larger space is the scene of a never-ending shuffle of kids lining up, eating and moving on out.
"It's a beehive, but at least they're eating at lunchtime," Smith says.
Relief was supposed to come with the passage in 1996 of a massive school bond package. The $390 million proposal would have included significant school construction in the southwest part of town; Smith even dreamed of losing most of the portable buildings. But a singularly inept campaign, one seemingly designed to ensure that only opponents would show up at the polls, doomed the bond issue to defeat.
Gun-shy district officials aren't making any promises about when they might go to the voters again, and Smith isn't holding his breath.
"We've just always dealt with reality here," he says. "We just ask ourselves, if we've got 1,570 or so kids, what's the best we can do for them?"
With the schools around him becoming increasingly crowded, leaving no place for Anderson's overflow to go, the situation is likely to get only worse at the facility. Smith says that with no room to grow, the school may have to look at changes in the school year or school day to handle the ever-exacerbating problem.
"We're looking at all kinds of things: maybe going year-round for some students, maybe having a split schedule where half the kids come earlier and half later, maybe leasing another building somewhere and putting in classes," he says. "It's one way that our size actually works for us -- we have more people who can take advantages of alternatives, more people who work nontraditional hours and might like a split schedule."
Such changes wouldn't be made, of course, without consulting with parents. The school district would also have to approve, because most of the proposals would require increased staff budgets.
(So-called "open-enrollment" charter schools approved by the state board of education operate independently of local school districts; charters like Anderson, which have been approved by local school boards, are funded through the relevant school district.)
Still, a reporter suggests to Smith, there comes a point when you'll have to do something new.
"And that point is coming up very soon," Smith replies.
Even so, he's relentless in insisting the cup is half-full: "Most of our Hispanic students are not Mexican, they're from South or Central America," he says. "The stories these kids can tell -- having to walk across countries and mountains to get here. One day they're in a war-torn country, the next they're here. So even if things aren't perfect here, they're a lot better than where they were before, for a lot of these kids."
The trickle of students that begins an Anderson school day in the predawn hours ends in a tidal wave of kids at 3 p.m. No good way has been developed yet for getting so many children easily through dismissal time.
Cars fill up Landsdowne Street in front of the school, vying for space with vans from after-school daycare centers. Although staffers try to encourage parents to pick up kids from other doors, most cars still go to the front entrance.
The long hallways of Anderson fill with kids, who listen with varying degrees of attention to their teachers' entreaties to keep quiet and stay in line. The littlest students are moved out first ("because it can get massive," Smith says), but it's still easy to pick out a small face or two that's overwhelmed by the Grand Central Station near-chaos.
The flood pours out various doors of the school at a breakneck pace, but it still takes 20 minutes or so to discern any ebb in the flow. Once the kids see daylight, of course, their natural instincts take over and the noise level erupts. Papers get strewn everywhere, teachers struggle to keep things moving, and kids who aren't walking home wander around looking for a familiar car. When it rains, things are ten times worse.
Finally, after about a half-hour, it's quiet again. Dozens of children are still hanging around -- and others are inside at after-school programs -- but the frantic atmosphere has died down. Teachers trudge back into the classrooms; Smith and other administrators head for their offices.
They perhaps would like to start working on the bigger problems of implementing new curricula and brainstorming for innovative ways to address the overcrowding. They'd probably love to be able to thoughtfully discuss how to ensure that the crucial first years of a student's academic career, when attitudes toward school can harden, is less like a factory and more like a welcoming, nurturing home.
They'd probably like to do that, but it's much more likely that everyone has more pressing fires to put out.
After all, in only a few more hours, the first kids will once again start lining up outside the front door.
Contact Richard Connelly at Rich_Connelly@houstonpress.com.