Cramped, yes, but lots of room for success

Six-year-old Dylan Nooney climbs the steps to Mobile Classroom 572, better known as the trailer with the frog flag.

He is one of 280 first-graders at Hawk Ridge elementary school Charlotte North Carolina, the largest grade in the largest elementary school in Mecklenburg County. If the 26 classes in mobile units formed their own school, it would still be larger than most.

Dylan doesn’t care. He’s more impressed that he got a water gun from the class Treasure Box when his table won Mrs. Dickison’s weekly behavior contest.

Hawk Ridge Elementary, with 1,422 students, is a bit like Walt Disney World: It takes an incredible amount of work behind the scenes to create a smooth experience for children.

If Principal Rosemary Sheppard, her staff and an army of parent volunteers succeed, no child will feel lost in the crowd.

And parents such as Amy Nooney, who moved into the Hawk Ridge zone three weeks before school started, will find what they’re looking for.

"I really am just wanting (Dylan) to put down his roots somewhere," she said.

For elementary school Hawk Ridge, Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s new assignment plan was like fertilizer on kudzu.

The school was well over capacity with 1,000 students last year. The family choice plan put about 1,500 students into its "home school" zone, guaranteeing them a seat if their parents chose to take it.

Most did

And families keep moving in. On summer days when a dozen new students showed up to register, Sheppard wondered where she’d put everyone.

There were already 13 mobiles when school ended in June. Night-crawling trucks hauled in 13 others from less-crowded schools, making the trip when they wouldn’t jam traffic.

CMS building service crews, the unsung heroes of this summer of change, ran water lines for drinking fountains and mobile restrooms. Contractors built a new driveway for car-poolers and a sidewalk to the Ballantyne YMCA, which handles overflow staff parking.

Nooney, a south Charlotte native, know elementary school Hawk Ridge in Charlotte was crowded when she bought a house in the nearby Blakeney Heath subdivision.

But when she actually saw the cluster of mobiles, she gasped, "Oh, my God!"

Home sweet mobile

The trailers of Hawk Ridge look like a military bivouac. Teachers soften the look with flower boxes and flags, like the frog with the dangling red tongue that marks Lisa Dickison’s door.The theme continues inside. Children’s names are written on cardboard frogs posted on a bulletin board. Stuffed animals perch on every available space.

Dickison, starting her third year in this trailer, assured Nooney she likes it there.

It’s about three-quarters the size of an inside classroom, but she doesn’t have to worry about disturbing another class when her 23 children sing or chant.

On rainy days, children may get wet walking to lunch or the restroom. But on nice ones, they go outside to the blacktop and do math with chalk.

What won Nooney over, though, was the people. Both Sheppard and Dickison seemed genuinely interested in her and Dylan.

At orientation, Dickison gave parents a refrigerator magnet listing her school and home phone numbers, e-mail address and the Web site used to post assignments.

Well-laid plans

Personal contact is one key to the Hawk Ridge strategy.

The other, says Sheppard, is to plan meticulously, make sure staff and families buy into those plans — then be ready to rethink them when circumstances change.

She had already started lining up staff when budget cuts sliced four teaching assistant positions. Then Gov. Mike Easley ordered schools to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes for young children. Sheppard is still figuring out how to make that work in a building where the music teachers work from a cart.

On the first day of elementary school hawk ridge in Charlotte North Carolina, Sheppard had a plan to handle the afternoon crowd, with after-school-care students, bus riders and car-poolers leaving classes at five-minute intervals.

Dismissal time came. Instead of the 22 buses scheduled to be on her lot, there was one. And a rare cloudburst threatened to drench anyone who stepped outside.

She delayed dismissal until the rain stopped; it was an hour after the regular time before all the children were headed home. Each day, more buses arrived on time, and delays dwindled.

Fun can happen anywhere

For Dylan and his classmates, late buses mean extra music time. After they pack their book bags, Dickison pops in a tape. "The Ants Go Marching" is a favorite, with first-graders tromping around like tiny soldiers.

For the kids, the start of school is not about assignment plans and scheduling. It’s about learning one another’s names, sitting on their bottoms during morning circle and wearing sneakers on PE days.

They marvel at the tubs of buttons, beads and bottle caps that will help them learn to sort, count, add and subtract.

They clap off the syllables in words, listen for rhymes in "I Never Saw a Purple Cow," and talk about long and short A’s.

Morgan Klein knows the red alphabet letters posted above the whiteboard are vowels.

"What do we call the black letters?" Dickison asks.

"Coincidences?" one child tries.

Recess takes place on the bus parking lot; mobiles have taken over the playground.

Dylan says it’s the best part of the day. He’s telling his mother about it, and he seems to be talking about shoes.

Confused, she presses for details. It seems he loves the box of toys his teacher brings outside.

"Choose," he says. "We choose our toys."

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