Classrooms on wheels? Here’s what overcrowding looks like in Bluffton schools

Instead of decorating her classroom’s bulletin boards with her students’ work, Rhonda Platt decorates a cart.

Instead of putting desks into groups like Platt prefers, she adapts to a classroom set up like a lecture hall by the teacher before her.

Instead of sticking around after class to answer questions from students, Platt gathers her supplies and rushes to her next room.

Platt, a business teacher at May River High School, had dreamed of becoming a teacher since she was a child.

And after 30 years in banking, she finally made a career change.

But operating out of a cart instead of a classroom was never part of her plan.

It’s frustrating — more than anything — because you always feel unorganized,” Platt said in a recent interview. “You always feel like you’re in a rush to go from one place to another.”

Although Platt loves teaching at May River High, she said that if she left it would be for one reason and one reason only. . .

The cart.

Over the course of a school year, Platt is one of nearly 50 teachers at May River High who have to helicopter into a room that isn’t theirs to teach their students.

Two failed bond referendums in recent years have left the district without the tens of millions of dollars it says it needs to alleviate the overcrowding in Bluffton schools.

As a result, administrators have increased class sizes, added mobile units and moved teachers from classrooms to carts as short-term solutions, leading teachers and parents to worry how these band-aid solutions are affecting students.

Another year without rezoning

The school board’s most recent request for $76 million in April 2018 would have funded the building of a new school in Bluffton and the expansion of two existing schools linked to an ongoing FBI investigation into building costs.

Voters, however, rejected that request by an unprecedented margin, in a large part, due to their lack of trust and confidence in the school board and former superintendent Jeff Moss, they said at the time.

Jodi Shrutek, a parent of students at one of the district’s most crowded schools, River Ridge Academy, said the recent funding failures have put the district so far behind she doesn’t know “how we’re going to catch up.”

“We should have been building and we should have been opening new construction for next school year,” Shrutek said in a recent interview. “But now we’re in a position where not only don’t we have new construction, we don’t have any funding either.”

In the past two years, Bluffton schools have enrolled nearly 800 additional students, according to district numbers.

From 2020 to 2030, the population in the Bluffton area is projected to grow by 17 percent, according to the Beaufort County Planning Department.

Bluffton’s most crowded schools — May River High, River Ridge Academy and Pritchardville Elementary — are all at or above 97 percent capacity and also located in the fastest-growing part of town. Schools like Bluffton High and Red Cedar Elementary, which sit at 85 percent capacity, are in the slowest-growing areas of town.

Carol Crutchfield, the school district’s planning coordinator, has gone before Bluffton’s Development Review Committee multiple times in recent years to urge the board to consider ramifications of increased development and changing commercially zoned areas to residential.

“At this time, the Beaufort County School District does not have the ability to support any new residential developments that could increase the number of school age children,” she said at a Spring 2018 meeting.

Yet, after six months of discussions and for the second year in a row, the Beaufort County School District will not rezone students into the less crowded schools for the 2019-20 school year and instead is opting for additional mobile units and changing the zones of future developments.

By changing the zones for neighborhoods under development, the district hopes to divert students moving to the ever-growing west side of Bluffton — where most schools are above 95 percent capacity — and fill the less crowded schools, according to Robert Oetting, the district’s chief operations officer.

To make some additional room at the most crowded schools, the district is adding a two-classroom mobile at River Ridge Academy, two two-classroom mobile units at Pritchardville Elementary and an eight-classroom mobile unit at May River High School this summer. These projects will come with a total price tag of about $2.3 million.

In the meantime, principals are finding their own ways to deal with overcrowding at their schools.

Rhonda Platt, a business teacher at May River High School, pushes her cart to her next classroom on Dec. 10, 2018. Maggie Angst

‘It’s definitely a hurdle’

When the bell rings, Platt mirrors her students and packs up her supplies.

Once everything is back on her cart, Platt makes her way through the hallway, weaving through the flow of students, to get to her next classroom in time.

Platt never imagined this would be her daily routine, but she’s getting used to it because she “absolutely loves May River”, she said.

May River Principal Todd Bornscheuer said his inability to give each teacher his or her own classroom is “definitely a hurdle” when it comes to competing for quality educators.

In order to curb that, Bornscheuer tries to “spread the wealth” and minimize the burden, he said.

Teachers who float from one classroom to another more than others are exempt from lunch or other additional after-school duties. They are also offered their choice of two different carts — the lighter, “sports car” model or the larger, “deluxe Cadillac” model.

But this approach to overcrowding not only affects teachers, it also takes a toll on students, Bornscheuer said.

School safety, for instance, has to be approached differently.

In a traditional setting, a teacher would stand at the door and usher students in when an emergency takes place.

Knowing that a teacher may be halfway between point A and point B, however, students are now instructed to lock a classroom down themselves if no teacher is present.

Above all, though, Bornscheuer said the biggest disservice for his students is his inability to offer certain classes when they need it due to the shortage of classrooms.

“The kids kind of get cheated, and there’s no other way to say that,” he said.

A classroom at Bluffton Elementary School is divided up so that multiple teachers can use the space at once, including for special education, ESOL and occupational therapy. Maggie Angst

‘Not exactly an ideal environment’

At Bluffton Elementary — one of Bluffton’s least crowded schools — lack of space is still an issue.

Although the building’s capacity is only at about 75 percent, its programmatic capacity — a figure that takes into account how classrooms are used — is closer to 85 percent, according to district figures and principal Christine Brown.

The school houses one of the district’s highest number of special needs programs, which requires administrators to set aside seven self-contained classrooms with few students in each, a sensory room and a resource room.

The building capacity, however, doesn’t take that into account.

“People say you’re not overcrowded, but there’s a difference between looking at the student population as opposed to the usage of our building,” Brown said.

For instance, in one area of the school, up to five teachers share a single classroom.

Diana Dromsky, an English as a second language teacher, and Arinn Wardell, a special education teacher, split the room down the center and overlap three periods a day.

Sandra Tarazona, another ESOL teacher, uses the room’s small office as her classroom.

And at certain times during the day, an occupational therapist and a 1-on-1 ESOL teacher are also working with students in the same room.

From physical space to classroom technology to lighting to volume levels, the teachers are required to adjust their teaching methods in order to accommodate for the others in the room.

A former office at Bluffton Elementary School was converted into a small classroom for ESOL teacher Sandra Tarazona. Maggie Angst

When Dromsky is teaching a lesson on the SMART board, another teacher might walk in and turn on the lights mid-lesson.

When Wardell is working with her students, they might hear Dromsky’s ESOL students talking and try to wander over.

Tarazona’s students, who are confined to a small office space, don’t have the luxury of moving around or playing games during their lessons — a practice that is proven to enhance students’ intellectual growth and retention.

Although the teachers try their best to communicate with one another ahead of time, the distractions are difficult to eliminate entirely.

“The interruptions and what that causes for student learning is not exactly an ideal environment for students,” Dromsky said.

Last month, the Beaufort County Board of Education took a first step toward holding a November referendum and trying to obtain taxpayer funds to lessen Bluffton’s school overcrowding issues.

Although the specific projects of the referendum are yet to be decided, it is expected to include the cost of construction for a new school in the Bluffton area and additions onto River Ridge Academy and May River High.

Principals like Bornscheuer and Brown are continuously working on the logistics of class sizes, floating teachers and classroom layouts, but in the end the answer to the overcrowding is going to rely on funding.

“If we say we need something Mrs. Brown usually goes above and beyond to get us it, but unfortunately she can’t give us another room,” Wardell said.