City school officials make big push for accurate head count

Short tally of students would cost system money

October 01, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

A small army of staff marched off to 80 Baltimore schools early yesterday on a mission of counting heads that could bring tens of thousands of dollars to the school district.

While school staff members didn't literally count every fidgety kindergartener in each classroom or the rows of students in all the high schools, they did try to account for every student in a school.

"We are doing a full-count press in the next couple days," said Mark Smolarz, the chief financial officer. "We are trying to ensure that all the schools are correctly counted."

At the end of the day, the question that the 40 teams of city school staff were to help answer was: Exactly how many students go to city schools, and what happened to the more than 2,200 students who were on school rolls last year but did not show up in schools where they were expected last month?

At stake is school funding. The district receives about $8,000 for each student enrolled in the system, Smolarz said.

Having an accurate count will ensure that the system gets the funding to which it is entitled and helps the district determine how many teachers it needs.

Gary Thrift, an area academic officer, and Sandra Siffrin, a special-education data coordinator, were two of those who volunteered to do the counting. Their first stop was William Pinderhughes Elementary School, a small West Baltimore school where students were walking through the doors on a cool fall morning.

Minutes later, all the teachers were asked to turn in their rolls -- those sheets of paper that list every student in an instructor's class and are used to record attendance.

Thrift and Siffrin compared the names on a classroom's roll to the list from the district's central computer system for each class. After about 30 minutes of checking, the numbers and names matched in every homeroom. In the case of Pinderhughes, the school's attendance records and the computer agreed that 222 attend the elementary school.

Smolarz said late yesterday it was too early to say whether the survey in other schools had yielded more students because he had not collected all the data.

Diligence with data

With test scores rising and new, smaller high schools opening around the city, school officials believed they had stemmed the tide of declining enrollment that had begun in the 1970s when more than 200,000 attended city schools.

In September last year, the school system had 94,031 students, not including about 2,000 city students who attend schools run by Edison Schools Inc., a company that took control of three city schools several years ago. The system was projecting a 300-student increase for this year, but early last month the number had dropped to 89,000 students -- a decline so alarming that officials feared the system would have to lay off teachers and might lose tax dollars next year.

Enrollment has increased since then, officials said, in large part because schools became more diligent about entering the data into the computer system, and the paperwork for transferring students was completed. On Friday, the system had 91,554 students.

Losing track

What most concerned administrators was that they seemed to have lost track of 2,268 students who were enrolled last year. So the principals were asked to track down every child who hadn't shown up.

About 800 of those 2,268 students have been accounted for, said chief of staff Jeffery N. Grotsky. Of those 800, 340 students were in the system, but at another city school. Another 151 had transferred to other public school systems in the state, and 44 had enrolled in private and parochial schools in the city. The remaining students fell into a variety of categories, including some who could not be found despite phone calls and letters to their homes.

Most of the students who hadn't shown up at school were not those who had failed a grade and were being held back. The largest group of the no-shows are in the middle grades -- from fifth to eighth.

Gary Unfried, principal of Harbor City High School, an alternative high school for struggling students, said children at his school often have unstable home lives and move frequently.

About 300 of his 1,500 students didn't arrive last month, and so he began a campaign to find them. He mailed out 600 to 700 letters, made phone calls to homes and checked with the juvenile justice system.

Varied priorities

School officials even contacted friends of students. The officials found that some teens had enrolled at other schools, some are pregnant, 40 or 50 have dropped out, and some finally showed up.

For some students, the difficulties of their lives overshadow school.

"Eating and living some place and not being beat up or sexually abused is much higher on their priority list than school," Unfried said.

However, most of the city high school population is attending class, said Frank DeStefano, the interim area academic officer for high schools.

For instance, 145 10th-graders have not arrived in schools across the city, fewer than might be anticipated in a city with a high dropout rate.

But DeStefano said they are continuing to try to find those students and get them back to school, even after yesterday's state deadline for completing the head count.

"If I can't get them on time, it doesn't in any way diminish my obligation to get them into school. I believe as a city we have to do everything to see these kids graduate," he said.

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