With more than 40,000 students enrolled in its public schools, Harford County has one of the fastest-growing school systems in the state, the result of a boom in residential development during the past decade.
The boom has been accompanied by growing pains for schools, which are struggling to maintain enough classroom space to accommodate the 44 percent increase in enrollment in the past 13 years.
Public school enrollment was increasing by 1,000 to 1,400 students a year during the 1990s, a time when housing developments were springing up along the Interstate 95 corridor and elsewhere in the county, said Donald R. Morrison, the school system's director of information.
The increase has dropped to about 400 new students each year, he said, but the growth that has occurred has forced the district to build eight schools - seven elementary and one middle.
Even with new construction, crowded classrooms at some schools, including Southampton Middle and Bel Air High, prompted the school board last year to implement the county's first large-scale redistricting plan. About 600 students were reassigned to different schools this year.
"There's very little room in any of the county schools," Morrison said. "There is some additional classroom space in the Havre de Grace area, but it's not practical to bus students to the northeastern part of the county."
Harford County Executive James M. Harkins announced plans this year for a middle/high school complex in the Bel Air area at a cost of $35 million to $40 million. No construction date has been set. The school board also has proposed spending about $25 million to renovate and upgrade older schools.
Morrison said the board will be looking closely at enrollment figures every year to see if more changes will have to be made. He said the school board would redistrict again, if necessary.
During the 1990s, the state and county spent more than $98 million on school construction to meet enrollment needs. But growth continues.
"Development has slowed, but we don't see it declining," he said. "It's a very desirable county to live in, and people are moving here for the quality of life."
The school system ranks fourth of the state's 24 systems in performance tests. Still, it is working to close the achievement gap on these tests between low-income minority students and white students, Morrison said. About 15 percent of county students receive free or reduced lunches at school.
"Some of the students come to school with a deficit because their parents are not economically able or experienced enough to help their children," he said.
The dividing line is U.S. 40, from Havre de Grace to Joppatowne, he said. East of the highway is more subsidized housing, and average family incomes are lower. The school population also is more diverse and transient, with a large percentage of students from military families with connections to Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Maryland School Performance Assessment Program results from 1999 show that African-American students in Harford trailed others in the third, fifth and eighth grades in the six test areas: reading, writing, language usage, mathematics, science and social studies.
The achievement gap also appears in upper grades.
At Bel Air High School last year, 91 percent of the 1,500 students were white; 3.5 percent African-American; 3.3 percent Asian; 1.1 percent Hispanic; and less than 1 percent American Indian. More than 97 percent of students who took the state competency tests in reading, math and writing had passed them by the end of the 11th grade.
The same year at Edgewood High School, with an enrollment of 1,100, 62 percent of students were white; 31 percent African-American; 4 percent Hispanic; 2.5 percent Asian; and less than 1 percent American Indian. Slightly more than 92 percent of students passed the competency tests by the end of 11th grade.
All Maryland students must pass the three competency tests to receive a high school diploma.
Among seniors at Bel Air High last year, 46 percent said they were planning to attend a four-year college. The figure at Edgewood was 27 percent. Bel Air High offers courses for all ability levels, including an inclusion program, honors program and Advanced Placement courses. Edgewood High, with a large percentage of students from military families, offers college preparatory and career-oriented courses. One program designed to help close the achievement gap is Study Circles, in which the school system will solicit suggestions from the public to improve the scores of all county students.