Standing Room Only

IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A DAY FILLED with promise; instead, Jose Barahona was full of frustration as he waited with his daughter Elizabeth in the auditorium of PS 149 in Queens, N.Y. Dressed in a crisp yellow-and-white gingham dress, Elizabeth was eager to start first grade. But her classroom this year is one of four bright red trailers parked in the playground. It could have been worse; her school is one of New York City's most crowded, with 1,100 kids crammed into a space meant for 650. "Education is very important," says Barahona, a cabdriver who fled his native El Salvador more than a decade ago. "The school has to supply a better place to learn."

His anxiety echoed in school corridors around the country last week as administrators and teachers scrambled to find space for a record 51.7 million elementary- and secondary-school students, a bumper crop that tops even the peak baby-boom years. "This is not a blip," predicts Education Secretary Richard Riley. "It's a constant trend and we are going to have to deal with it."

Some districts have been trying. When birthrates began to rise in the late 1980s, many administrators sought to raise money for new construction; that proved to be daunting in an age of taxpayer revolt. Then a surge in immigration--combined with an unexpected increase in black and Hispanic births and a decline in the high-school dropout rate--created standing-room-only crowds from kindergarten to 12th grade. "It's like you're on the beach and you see big waves coming," says Brian Cram, superintendent of schools in Clark County, Nev., the country's fastest-growing district. "If you don't have enough money to build a retaining wall, those waves are going to crash right over the beach."

With no immediate cure in sight, many school officials admit they're relying on stopgaps. In the affluent district of Walled Lake, just north of Detroit, residents have defeated school-construction bond issues for three years in a row; a fourth vote is scheduled for the end of this month. Meanwhile, administrators are using trailers, busing some kids to less crowded districts and converting any available space. Last week high schoolers studied biology in a garage designed for auto-repair classes.

Even districts that managed to raise construction money say they can't keep up. Superintendent Frank Petruzielo presides over 218,000 students in Broward County, Fla., the second fastest-growing district in the country. Broward has built 37 new schools in the last seven years--and still doesn't have enough space for 40,000 students, many of whom have been assigned to 2,200 trailers, dubbed "portable classrooms." "We've been called the portable capital of the world," says Petruzielo, "and we're just about portabled out. There is no room on most campuses to add many more." Some Broward schools are already on staggered sessions; others have converted to a year-round schedule in order to accommodate as many students as possible.

In fast-growing areas in the West and the Southeast, hiring teachers is as hard as finding space. "We're always competing," says Dale Braun, who is in charge of finding places for 657,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest enrollment in the district's history. "There isn't anything like an NFL signing bonus that we can offer, but, believe me, we thought of things like that." Resourcefulness helps. Evelyn Bostwick, principal of San Miguel Elementary School in Southgate, recruited three teachers at her daughter's wedding last month. When Bostwick heard that the maid of honor's sister was looking for a job, she urged her to apply. "She said, "Can I bring my two friends?' I said, "Are you kidding? Bring all your friends'."

The crunch comes at a particularly bad time for education reformers, who have been pushing for smaller class sizes. This summer, California legislators approved a plan to give districts $19,500 for each class that has no more than 20 students--a good idea that's almost impossible to implement in the crowded schools that need it most. Officials in booming Gwinnett County, Ga., outside Atlanta, tried to minimize the vastness of the new Creekland Middle School (with 2,500 students) by creating five subschools. But principal Joan Akin isn't optimistic. "How soon will we have trailers here?" she asks. Like her colleagues, she knows that before she can worry about Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic, she has to master the new R--Room.

In the fast-growing West and Southeast classrooms are filled as fast as they're built

Districts with the largest enrollment gains PERCENT SCHOOL DISTRICT INCREASE CHANGE Los Angeles Unified, Calif 91,223 16.6% New York City, N.Y. 87,163 9.5 Dade Country, Fla. 86,407 38.9 Broward County, Fla. 64,118 51.0 Palm Beach County, Fla. 51,327 72.5 Gwinnett County, GA 38,263 100.1 Orange County, Fla. 34,893 44.3 Guilford County, N.C. 30,214 124.7 Fresno Unifed, Calif. 27,127 55.1