Where did the children go? Howard County: A better formula is needed to determine how many students will enroll.

November 18, 1997

THE TRADITIONAL METHODS for predicting school enrollment have failed the prognosticators. Until recently, information on births, historical patterns and housing construction was all school planners needed to determine how many students would enter kindergarten each year.

Planners still use that data, but the results have not been precise lately. Some X-factors have rendered conventional algebraic calculations somewhat obsolete. Officials in Howard County's 40,000-pupil system overestimated student population by nearly 500 this year, greeting 362 fewer elementary children than expected.

Bill Grau, of the schools' Office of Planning and Construction, has relied on scientific estimates with great confidence -- and accuracy -- in the past. But with unforeseen factors skewing the numbers, Mr. Grau acknowledges, "this is more art than science."

The challenge is clear. School administrators must tinker with their formula to stress other determinants of enrollment if they want to avoid another round of surprises in the 1998-99 school year. They appear to be doing so, at least systemwide. Officials may not have figured out the equation yet, but are adjusting their projections of how many children born five years ago actually will enter county kindergarten classes rather than moving from Howard or attending private school.

Another problem is to accurately estimate enrollment in each school before the year begins.

In some cases in September, educators were transferred three weeks into the semester from schools with lower-than-expected enrollments to those with more students than anticipated. The transfers were necessary to maintain the mandated maximum pupil-to-teacher ratio of 25-1, but should have been made before students become accustomed to their teachers for the coming year.

Accurate projections, however difficult, are critical in ensuring smooth transitions into the school year. As planners strive for accuracy, they cannot afford to overcompensate and create the even worse problem of underestimating enrollment.

They need to employ fine tuning, not radical changes, to place figures closer to the mark.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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