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April 30, 2003

School System Growth Can Be Accommodated! Think About It!

Alan Imhoff

The biggest area of concern about growth is enrollment in our public school system. Each year more students will be enrolled than the previous one. The only exception in recent memory was 1979, when 23,665 students fell over five years to 23,435 before rebounding. Since 1985 the system has added 14,952 students (as of Sept. 30, 2002) or an 18-year average of 831.

During that same 18-year period, approximately 37,228 housing permits were issued, in theory generating approximately .636 students per household. If that theory were true then last September 30th we should have seen about 1,200 new students, yet we saw only half that number. Why?

The interesting thing about using this type of statistical method is that is easy to understand and oftentimes very wrong in its conclusions. Changes in demographics caused by different types of housing units being built and families able to afford them are but one of the variables.

Changes in family size are another. In 1975 there were approximately .78 students for every household in the county Since 1989 it has held fairly constant at .50. Using that figure last year should have seen 944 students, instead only 620 showed up on the rolls.

The system is growing! Make no mistake about that. The real question: Will it be the 1,200 students of just a few years ago or perhaps a repeat of last yearís 620? The 620 students equate to approximately 25 new classrooms under current guidelines or the equivalent of constructing one elementary school a year. Twelve hundred students is almost the equivalent of two new elementary schools a year.

Therefore, we will need a minimum $15 to $30 million every year for constructing new classrooms. With the current budget crunch, what can we do to tide us over until revenues start rising again?

First, we could be innovative. Several years ago a "portable core facility" was designed and proposed to be available in large developments that could accept the "learning cottages" (portables) for classrooms. By having a developer grade and bring utilities to the site, the core could be set up with say four or five "cottages" attached to handle the elementary school age children of that community.

As the school system waits for the funding to come through, the core school could grow by adding additional cottages as the development grows. Once the permanent school is completed, the core and its cottages could move on to the next location.

Letís say the City of Frederick and local businesses purchase the core facility under a private/public partnership and lease it to the school system for a dollar a year. Startup costs would be minimal and the children would have a school to which they could walk. No redistricting would be necessary at the elementary school level.

Over time, the city could use the portable core as a temporary field office for one of its growing departments while it seeks more permanent office space, if there is not a need by the school system.

A second idea could be the adding of a fifth period to the school day for high school students from 3:15 to 4:45 p.m. Yes, I know the howl and cry is going up, but really just think about this a second.

By offering a fifth period, some students (and teachers) who do not like mornings, could come in the afternoon. Work-study programs might be able to accommodate more students with a more flexible schedule, not to mention the opportunity to reduce class size in certain core courses by having a section or two added later in the day.

Yes, there will be a lot of scheduling problems, but they are not insurmountable. Just think of the flexibility for teachers to have one morning class and extended planning period or in-house skills training and then two periods to teach in the afternoon.

Adding this one period to the day could theoretically add up to a 20% capacity increase to each existing high school while we waited for the next $45 million high school to be built.

So, can we accommodate growth while we wait for the revenues to increase to build more schools? My answer is yes!

With any number of creative solutions that have already been studied but never implemented, the public school system can grow each year without much of the hand-wringing and cries of woe that now float across the county.

Using some of these techniques may even reduce the size of annual increases in operating budgets by some amount. Notice I said may, not would.

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