School projections off base, critics say

Numbers under fire as elementary opens over capacity

September 10, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

By mid-July, Principal Beth Strauss knew the numbers would be way off.

From the volume of parents calling to register their children at New Town Elementary School, she could tell the new school's enrollment would far surpass the school system's projection of 650 pupils on opening day.

She was right.

By Thursday of last week, more than 900 children were attending New Town - a school built for 707 in Owings Mills, one of the fastest-growing areas in Baltimore County. Eighty more names are on the roll books, but those pupils haven't appeared yet.

A staff of school system officials is charged with predicting how many students will enroll in each of the county's 162 schools each year. They crunch numbers for the current school year, the coming school year and the next 10 school years as they try to determine as accurately as possible which schools will be crowded and which will have room to spare. They need to know where to send the teachers, where to build portable classrooms, where to send extra books.

Still, despite reliance on birth records, new housing permits and other data, it's a science that can be inexact, officials acknowledge. What it comes down to, they say, is the unpredictability of personal choice - where a family decides to move, whether a child is sent to private school, whether a parent requests a different school so a child can be closer to their office or a preferred day-care center.

"You never really know until the school opens," said Pam Carter, a specialist in the school system's office of standardized testing and student data.

"Most brand-new schools will come in a little over their [projected] numbers partly because of the attractiveness," she said.

New schools open an average of 12 percent higher than expected, often because parents think a new school means a better school. Last year, she said, it was Dogwood Elementary, which opened with more than 500 pupils, despite projections of 462.

At New Town, 150 children who transferred from schools outside of Baltimore County are enrolled, as are 40 who came from private schools, officials say. Strauss said every one of her pupils lives within the New Town boundary. She took no special transfer requests, not even from her teachers who wanted their children in school alongside them, because she knew how packed the school would be, she said. Portable classrooms will probably be used to ease the crowding.

A more permanent solution may have to be found as well, says Kenneth N. Oliver, chairman of the county's planning board. He recalls that four years ago when New Town Elementary was in the planning stages, the planning board recommended the school be built for 1,200 children. School officials had planned for 500. The compromise was 707.

"It's obvious our recommendation was right on target," Oliver says. "It shouldn't have been hard to predict. Whatever they're doing, they're totally incorrect. New development goes in and no one's thinking about where are all these kids going to go."

When the school board's capital budget plans start being discussed in January, he says he intends to recommend an addition to the crowded school.

State formulas play into such decisions. The state will not fund a school if the enrollment numbers don't justify it.

School board President Donald L. Arnold says he wants to look at whether the system needs to fast-track the construction of another elementary in the Owings Mills area. And he wants the staff to revisit the projections to see if New Town High School, being built across the street for 1,500 students with a scheduled 2003 opening date, needs to be larger.

"It would be foolish of us not to at least sit down and ask the questions at least before we open the doors," he said.

Del. Robert A. Zirkin, who represents Owings Mills, said the botched projections for New Town Elementary further the case he has been trying to make for a new middle school in the area. School system officials have told him their numbers show a middle school isn't needed.

"Those projections aren't worth the paper they're printed on," he says. "They're not even close. They just don't even have a handle on what's going on there."

But officials aren't ready to say they were so far "off" in their projections at New Town. A school's enrollment is not considered final until the end of September. That's when a snapshot count is taken - and that's what the state uses in determining a school district's size.

Baltimore County's predicted enrollment for the 2001-2002 school year is 107,360 - up about 230 students from a year ago. It appears to be leveling off. In the early 1970s, Baltimore County peaked at 134,037 students and then plummeted to 81,000 in 1986.

"We're very cautious about giving out any hard numbers" until October, said Chris Brocato, a data analyst for the school system.

"Systemwide, we can be very accurate," says Donna Flynn, executive director of assessment and student data. "Then as you move down [to individual schools] it gets a little bit harder."

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