Schools seek better ways to predict enrollment

Area districts strive for more accurate estimates

April 10, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Al Eilbacher jokes about crystal balls and dart boards. He kids around about rewarding schools that send him good Christmas gifts. And he chuckles at the popular image of himself as the great and powerful Oz, squirreled away behind a curtain, deciding and dictating the fates of overcrowded schools in a booming voice.

Reality is much different.

Reality involves a lot of pointing and clicking. A lot of late, Jimmy Buffett-fueled nights at the office. A lot of flipping through maps, dragging columns on a spreadsheet and defending predictions that inevitably will come under attack from nearly every direction.

Eilbacher is a facilities planner with Carroll County public schools.

Like his counterparts in most school systems in the nation, he's the one who comes up with the calculations and projections - educated guesses, really - about how many students will show up and at which school each year. Those numbers can determine anything from how many books are ordered and teachers are hired to whether and where new schools are built and which older and emptier schools are closed.

"It's not like being a bookie, where I can be up one here and down three there," Eilbacher said of his predictions for the county's 36 elementary, middle and high schools. "I want it to be right everywhere."

But it isn't. And because it isn't, interim schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker appointed a committee to see whether there's a better way of predicting student enrollment than the method used nationwide and by most of Maryland's 24 school districts. The committee will present its recommendations tonight to the school board.

"I am concerned about our enrollment projections," Ecker said, explaining why he appointed the committee. "There are two things we know about them. First, they're wrong. And second, we don't know by how much."

Student enrollment projections have been called the genetic code of school districts. Crammed onto pages and pages of spreadsheets in a typeface that could only be considered the "small print" if it were in a contract, they tell school administrators how many students are expected to enroll at each grade level at each school for each of the next 10 years.

A Sun analysis of five years' worth of Carroll's student enrollment projections shows that Eilbacher and his predecessor have produced widely varied results, from exactly predicting last year that 534 pupils would show up this year at Taneytown Elementary to underestimating the enrollment of Westminster's Cranberry Station Elementary this year by 62 pupils - the equivalent of more than two classrooms of kids.

Although most of the school system's enrollment predictions fall within 5 percent of each school's actual enrollment, even that small a discrepancy can mean trouble, forcing principals to scramble each August to accommodate as many as three extra classes of students.

But Carroll is not alone in its struggles with enrollment projections.

Baltimore County hired a consultant four years ago to hone its estimates after predictions for fast-growing Owings Mills and Reisterstown were consistently too low. Nonetheless, district officials were caught off guard in September when 930 pupils showed up for opening day at Owings Mills' New Town Elementary, a building built for 707 students and where school staff were expecting 650.

Howard County administrators hired the same consultant last year and have paid him $80,000 over two years to revamp the county's projection methods from a one-dimensional, spreadsheet-based calculation of past grade-to-grade ratios into a layered process that electronically tracks current students as well as residential building permits, housing sketch plans and proposed subdivisions.

"We will track, through geographic mapping software, all of the planning stages from a tract of land being developed to the point of people living in a house," said David C. Drown, who coordinates geographical information systems for Howard schools. "It has been a big change, ... but the bottom line is that these are still guesses. They're made with a great amount of education and science, but there's also quite a bit of art involved in it."

There are also quite a few misconceptions about enrollment projections. Parents routinely complain that their children's classes would be smaller and their schools would be less crowded if the school system could accurately predict student enrollment.

But Carroll school planners have been nearly on target over the years at Carrolltowne Elementary in Eldersburg, the Sun analysis showed. There, six portable classrooms sit outside one of the county's most overcrowded elementary schools. This year's enrollment projections were off by only 11 pupils, predicting that 671 children would enroll at the school built for 569. There were 660 on the student rosters in September - a variance of only 1.6 percent from Eilbacher's predictions.

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