Enrollments have unexpectedly surged for at least six Baltimore County schools this year after dozens of students from private and parochial schools streamed in because their parents decided they couldn't afford tuition payments in a difficult economy.
County school principals said they have seen far more transfer students from private and parochial schools than usual.
Dumbarton Middle School in Rodgers Forge was so hard hit by 30 unexpected transfers that its principal had to add two teachers and change the schedules of some pupils to reduce crowding in gym and art classes.
"I built a schedule for 870 kids. We topped at 900 for opening day, so that obviously meant hiring additional staff," said Marsha D. Baumeister, principal at Dumbarton. "Otherwise, I would have had a gym class [with enrollment] in the forties."
Parochial, private and public schools attribute the increase largely to layoffs and stock portfolio decreases that have left parents unable to pay annual tuition ranging from several thousand dollars at parochial schools to $16,000 at North Baltimore's private high schools.
Jim Purcell, whose son Tim went to McDonogh School in Owings Mills for middle school and has just started ninth grade at Dulaney High, said the public school's quality academics made the switch easier, but the economy prompted the move.
Purcell retired three years ago after the value of his stock portfolio soared, but since then it has lost 60 percent of its value. Purcell has gone back to work and his son agreed to go to Dulaney High in Timonium, which has had 42 transfers this year - 20 percent higher than normal.
"Things went to hell in the last two years, and we had to retrench and reprioritize," Purcell said.
Private and parochial school officials have noticed the exodus. Many said their schools have offered extended payment plans, financial aid and discounts on tuition to stop the flight.
"But some families believe that the aid isn't enough, and they can't afford to keep their child at McDonogh," said Brian McBride, director of admissions at the school, where three students from different families withdrew for financial reasons.
County school administrators will not know the total number of students from private and parochial schools who have transferred until next month, when principals submit final enrollment numbers. Private school administrators said the loss is above normal, but not alarmingly so; the Archdiocese of Baltimore said its parochial school enrollment has increased.
Of the county's 135,000 school-age children, 20 percent attend a private or parochial school. The county has the highest percentage in Maryland, so it's not surprising that some would return to public schools in the county in an economic downturn.
Public school officials said students are transferring from big and small parochial and private schools, such as McDonogh, Pius X, St. Paul's in Brooklandville, St. James Academy in Monkton, Towson Catholic and even Oldfields in Glencoe, a boarding school.
"When the first tuition payment comes due Aug. 1, that's when the reality hits," said Nancy Mugele, director of communications at Roland Park Country School, where one family withdrew its three daughters for financial reasons.
The highest concentration of transfers in the county has been to public schools in central and northeast areas. Among the leaders are Loch Raven High, which has had 44 private and parochial school transfer students enroll; Perry Hall Middle with about 20; and Hereford Middle with about 15.
Public school principals said finances aren't the only reason parents are transferring their children. Parents would find a way to pay tuition, the principals said, if they did not think their children could get a quality education in public school.
"We can offer a gifted-and-talented program here. We offer foreign languages of Latin, Spanish and French. We also offer Algebra I. We have two students taking ninth-grade math," said Robin S. Read, principal at Ridgely Middle in Timonium, which has had 21 transfers.
Lyle R. Patzkowski, principal at Dulaney High, echoed that sentiment about the reason for transfers. "I would like to think it's because of Dulaney," which is often noted as one of the best high schools in the county, he said. "I believe the economy has had some impact."
He and most other principals said they expected their schools could handle the new arrivals without making major changes.
Dumbarton, however, which has 80 more pupils than the 820 projected by school administrators, has felt the impact.
Former pupils from St. Pius X school on York Road have taken over a table in the lunchroom. Despite leaving room in classes for extra pupils, Baumeister received authorization to hire additional art and physical education teachers. She also sent letters home notifying parents that some pupils' schedules were being changed to keep class sizes low.
And the pupils keep coming.
Recently, a parent asked to enroll his two sons, who had been attending Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Loch Raven, at Dumbarton.
"I've been informed that it is likely I will be laid off from my current job at the end of September," the father e-mailed. "I'm now quite concerned that I would be unable to handle the financial commitment."