Overestimated enrollment sends schools scrambling Some students show up in unexpected places

November 13, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Each year, Howard County school planners look at plans for the construction of homes and demographic patterns to predict how many students are going to enroll and what schools they will attend. Usually, they come close to hitting the mark.

But this year, for the third time in a row, they were off -- way off.

Nearly 500 fewer students than expected enrolled this school year, and the geographic distribution of those who enrolled did not follow predicted patterns, school data show.

The overestimate doesn't mean that the system, which hired xTC teachers based on the projections, now needs fewer teachers. Because there was a small rise in the number of high school students -- and because many students at all grade levels showed up where they weren't expected -- the county needed more teachers this year.

As a result, at least three teachers were transferred from one elementary school to another, the pool of teachers held in reserve was depleted before the school year began, and 10 new teachers were hired, at a cost of $300,000, to fill the unexpected gaps.

"It's gotten more and more difficult [to predict enrollment] in the last few years, but I don't really know why," said Bill Grau of the schools' office of planning and construction. "It's kind of the way the population is moving around these days."

Each year, school planners use historical data, housing plans and birthrates to project how many students will enroll in the public schools, Grau said.

For most of the past decade, when enrollment has grown 33 percent -- from 26,748 in the 1987-1988 school year to 40,010 this year -- they have been accurate.

In 1993, planners were off by 88 students; in 1994, by 67.

In 1995, 521 fewer students enrolled than were expected. Most of the discrepancy was among elementary school students. Overestimates continued last year and this year.

As of the end of September, 362 fewer elementary students than expected had signed up, 73 percent of the total overestimate of 495, school data show.

Three elementary teachers were transferred after the start of school to accommodate unexpected enrollment patterns. Teachers went from Ilchester to Fulton, from Thunder Hill to Bushy Park and Elkridge to Deep Run.

Those moves roughly reflect population growth and housing construction in western Howard County and on the edges of Columbia, and stable or declining populations in such older neighborhoods as east Columbia and Ellicott City.

In at least one case, funding for a teacher slot that was set aside for one elementary school before school began was transferred to a nearby school because of unexpected enrollment. The departure of about 25 students from Waverly for nearby Hollifield Station, a new school with open enrollment, created the need for an extra full-time position at Hollifield, said Carey Wright, principal at Waverly.

"I don't think anybody anticipated that," Wright said. "We expected some to go, but not that many."

At each of the schools involved in the transfers, students, teachers and staff members had to adjust quickly.

"I was just starting to get settled down, and then I just packed up my stuff," said Ivye Pazornik, a first-year teacher assigned to teach fourth grade at Elkridge, then transferred to Deep Run three weeks into the school year. "I really didn't know it was going to happen until probably the week of [the transfer.]"

Students and teachers at both schools helped her pack her supplies and move, and she has written letters to many of her old students, Pazornik said.

"We explained it to the kids, why I needed to move, but I don't think they understood," she said. "They were a little bit sad."

The move was necessary because the 29-to-1 ratio of students to teachers in the fourth grade at Deep Run exceeded the 25-to-1 maximum set by school policy. And more new homes are planned in the neighborhoods surrounding Elkridge, which will bring more families, said Elkridge Principal Diane Mumford.

"We thought the construction would get under way and we'd have the children, but for some reason things didn't work that way," she said. "It's so funny. As a principal, you think you'll just focus on education and books and things, but that's not always the case."

At other schools, figuring out why enrollment didn't fit the expected pattern is more complex, school officials said, pointing to such factors as the increasing number of people moving because their jobs require it and the rise in home schooling and private school enrollment.

Such societal shifts might explain some of the changes in public school enrollment, Grau said, but not all.

"This is more an art than a science, that's for sure," he said.

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