The Story Rug Is Now Full

Teacher Patty Paulson's 23 kindergartners bound and pirouette through the classroom door, scrambling for standing-room-only spots on the rust-colored carpet. Music class in Meridian, Idaho's, Ustick Elementary School is in a storage closet. Where pails and lunch tables were once stacked, 5- and 6-year-olds stomp their sneakers to taped banjo music, trying not to trample each other. Another kindergarten class in the suburban Boise school is camping out in what used to be the faculty lounge. Ustick is jammed with more students than it was designed to hold--140 extras, 40 of them surplus kindergartners. Like the snarl of new students at many of the nation's school districts, Idaho's kid crunch is likely to get worse. just last week Meridian taxpayers rejected a $27 million bond issue to build more schools. For teachers and kids, the news aggravated the claustrophobia. As Paulson attempts to count heads in her closet-room, a 5-year-old offers assistance: "We got a new kid, He's right here." A cacophonous chorus follows: "New kid! New kid!"

Schoolhouse gridlock has taken many of the nation's school districts by surprise. Five years ago the U.S. Census Bureau predicted that school enrollment would drop by about 1 percent by the year 2025. But current congestion in the classroom suggests otherwise. Six million more children are attending school now than were 10 years ago. From 1980 to 1993, kindergarten enrollment alone shot up by 22 percent. Several factors are responsible. Late-blooming boomers are producing far more children later in life than experts predicted, Incontrast, Generation X women are having babies before it becomes physically risky. And immigrants, particularly from Mexico and Asia, are continuing to flood into the country; many have large families at young ages. All this has sent demographers back to their calculators. By 2025, the school population will grow from 49 million to 58 million children-an 18 percent hike-according to new figures released by the Educational Research Service, an independent firm. By all estimates, many school districts are unprepared.

When the population dropped in the mid-'80s, many school officials homed in on their bottom line. Meridian taxpayers rejected a bond to build a new high school, since enrollment was at a standstill. New York City officials demolished, gave away or sold close to 100 under-used school buildings in the late '70s. "No one objected. It seemed like a wise move at the time," says former midtown-Manhattan community board member Noreen Connell. But what was one decade's logic is another's absurdity. On the first day of school this fall, 2,300 kindergartners were left with no place to park their lunch pails. "Sometimes the only place to sit is on the radiator," says Jan Atwell, chair of a local school-budget watchdog group.

To squeeze in students, officials often construct complex scheduling puzzles--adding split sessions, leasing office space, doubling up classes. Some even turn surplus 5-year-olds away. Although early-childhood educators argue that 3 is the ideal age for school, kindergarten is still considered the disposable grade. Only 11 states (and the District of Columbia) mandate it; 26 others provide it Only on demand.

Faced with crowds, school officials try to keep the students safe and orderly. "Every kid has a warm, dry place," says Virgil Hettick, the director of school research for Santa Ana, Calif "We don't have any kids in tents." (Santa Ana's birthrate due mostly to its large Mexican immigrant population -is twice the national average.) Teachers don't have the time to give each child special attention. Anna Shine, a Santa Ana kindergarten teacher, has 32 kids in her class-California's legal maximum. "You just feel like a piece of taffy being pulled in many directions," says Shine.

In affluent Naperville, Ill., the crowding is no less acute. just last year, principal Carl Pinnow could see nothing but an empty field and a two-lane road outside his window. Now the fields are sprouting skeletal subdivisions; the roads are lined with strip malls. Spring Brook Element has doubled in size in six years. It's now over-booked by 100 kids. Enrollment nearly tripled district wide in the last decade. Even $155 million worth of school construction over 10 years has not kept up with the fertility rate. "What are you going to do?" wonders Lydia Klotz, who moved to the Chicago suburb because of the schools' reputation. "AU of a sudden, boom."

No longer able to trust the demographers, early-childhood director Sheryl Belknap has taken to driving around the Boise farmlands counting the multitude of construction sites. She has to start rustling up portables and mall space to rent. If she doesn't build it, the kids will still come.

To the surprise of some demographers, the number of children in the United States is growing rapidly. This surge will continue into the next century as schools scramble to add space. PERCENT OF AGE CHILD CHILDREN MUST BEGIN STATE UNDER 5 SCHOOL Alaska 10.0% 7 Utah 9.8 6 California 9.1 6 New Mexico 8.6 5 Arizona, Texas 8.5 6 Louisiana 8.0 7 Maryland 8.0 5 Mississippi 7.9 6 Georgia 7.9 7