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County's enrollment expected to peak in 2002

September 26, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

The number of students in Washington County's public schools is expected to decrease by nearly 700 in the next nine years, according to local and state estimates.

Enrollment, 19,625 last year, is projected to be 18,934 in September 2008, according to the Washington County Board of Education. The county's child population may have crested, according to Director of Facilities Management Dennis McGee.

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"It appears we're flat," he said last week.

Enrollment projections show a statewide downward trend following a peak in 2002. Both the state and county cite low population growth and a decreasing birthrate as causes for the decline.

According to the Maryland Office of Planning, the state's recent statistics show a similarity to the national "baby boom echo," a surge in births during the 1980s similar to rapid population growth following World War II.

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Fewer schoolchildren will mean less crowding in some schools and it could shrink big classes. But Gov. Parris Glendening said providing a quality education will still be a challenge for state schools.

"We must continue to aggressively reduce all class sizes and ensure that we provide our students and teachers with state-of-the-art classrooms that are equipped with the most modern technology available," he said in a press release.

The Maryland Office of Planning released its enrollment projections earlier this month. It uses a computer model that estimates student populations based on birth, dropout and retention rates as well as historical trends.

In Washington County, McGee uses the data to forecast local enrollments.

He adds other factors, such as new home construction. McGee gets copies of all building permits and puts colored pins into a map on the wall in his office.

He tracks developments, watches feeder patterns and monitors population. He tries to estimate the number of "special permissions" - kids who attend school outside their feeder district. The overall calculations have many variables.

"It's an art. It's a bit of a guess," he said. It's also a science with a good degree of accuracy. "You can usually hit this thing right on the nose," he said.

After 12 years of increasing births, the state's births peaked in 1990 at 80,200. Washington County's birth crest came in 1991 with 1,737. The number has decreased since 1997.

The state expects the birthrate to drop until 2000 and become flat. As county births decrease, the population is shrinking. More people are leaving than are being born. "I think we're seeing some out-migration," McGee said.

In June, there were 1,601 second-graders. There are now 1,570 students in the third grade. "Where did those 30 kids go?" McGee asked. "People are moving out of the county."

Last spring, he projected the school year would begin with 19,798 students. But by the second week of September, the numbers in almost every grade were lower than expected. Preliminary counts indicate there are 50 fewer students than last year's 19,625.

Statewide, enrollment was 821,685 in 1998 and is expected to climb 20,000 by 2002 before declining to 806,300. Some jurisdictions will continue to grow through 2008. Frederick, Calvert and Howard counties are projected to have sustained growth.

Enrollment projections for each county can be found on the Internet at: www.op.state.md.us/msdc/index.html within "Updated Demographic and Socioeconomic Profile - MD Outlook."

McGee is preparing current local projections based on actual September enrollments. He doesn't expect a dramatic change.

"We're about tapped out," he said.

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