School closures straining class size

Penn-Lincoln Elementary will see an increase of more than 200 students this school year as a result of the closure of two elementary schools in the Altoona Area School District and enrollment adjustments.

In all of Altoona’s elementary schools, space will be tight following the closings of Wright and Washington-Jefferson elementaries because of enrollment declines.

Neighboring Altoona Area to the south, Hollidaysburg Area School District families have embarked on a second year without Allegheny No. 1 Elementary School, closed by its board for financial reasons and decreased enrollment.

Former Allegheny No. 1 Parent Teacher Organization President Tina Barton had three children attending a new school in the district last year.

“I was concerned when we first knew we were going to have larger class sizes. But it didn’t seem to affect my kids’ learning,” she said.

Barton is currently co-PTO president with the original PTO president of her children’s new school, C.W. Longer Elementary.

“I know it’s really hard on the parents. It was harder on me than the kids. We are set in our ways. Keep it positive with their kids. That would be my advice to parents.”

Hollidaysburg Area Education Association President Jim Murphy said the school closure has strained class sizes at remaining schools.

“The closing of Allegheny one has put pressure of class sizes at schools where kids were sent. It’s a concern of ours. You reach a certain point where you have 25 kids, 30 kids in a class. That has definitely been a concern of teachers and their association,” he said.

Last year, of Hollidaysburg’s 76 kindergarten through sixth-grade classes, 30 classes contained 25 to 29 students, district enrollment numbers show.

The other classes were within the estimated averages of 22 to 24 students projected prior to the school closure.

Altoona Area schools will also feel a pinch with classroom sizes as students squeeze into buildings to near maximum capacity. The district’s buildings were vastly underutilized prior to the closures, officials have said.

Altoona Area Superintendent Thomas Otto informed community members attending the board’s Aug. 20 meeting that he is concerned about class sizes and limited building capacity.

In closing Wright and Washington-Jefferson, the district has met its goal of utilizing its buildings for maximum efficiency, Otto said, but as of Aug. 12, there were almost no rooms available for further enrollment gains. The district is seeing an unexpected increase of 100 students.

The district’s project architect Vern McKissick had estimated stable long-term enrollment. However, there have been cases of districts seeing unexpected enrollment increases after closing schools.

Many neighborhoods within the school district are home to people age 55 and older. McKissick had cautioned the board on how the loss of those retirees could lead to a rebirth of the areas in the future.

The 4-square-mile Pottstown School District, for example, was stable for years at 3,100 students. Then, in a period of seven years, the district’s student population grew to meet its building capacity, McKissick said. As the area’s retirement-age people moved on, the small homes in densely populated neighborhoods like those found in Altoona, he said, became great starter homes for young families despite local industries closing.

“Population shot up, and the district found themselves at capacity,” he said.

That isn’t an immediate concern, but McKissick advised the board to consider a possible migration of families to the area as it deliberates on selling or maintaining the closed schools. The district is using the Washington-Jefferson building as a preschool center, and the Altoona-Blair County Development Corp. is planning to seek the school board’s approval to offer the Wright building to potential buyers as a temporarily tax-free property as allowed by state business incentive programs.

The low cost of housing in Altoona has already attracted many younger families, said City Planning Director Lee Slusser.

“It [an increase in population] could happen here. I’ve heard of it happening at other places. However, most demographic changes happen slower here than other places. I would be stunned if the school ran into a situation where it didn’t have classroom space.”

He said demographics in Altoona change slowly because market forces are in weak effect. Altoona, unlike Pottstown’s 20-mile distance from Philadelphia, is not in a commutable distance to another market force, he said.