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Mixed message

October 13, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

Washington County school officials had plenty of good news to share during the annual State of Education Forum with the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce today - recently released figures show higher test scores and lower dropout rates throughout the county school system.

But they also used the forum to give the business group a heads-up on the impact the county's growth surge is making on county schools.

The bottom line is crowded schools and increased class sizes in the short-term, and a need for an aggressive building program to handle the projected influx of students.

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County Board of Education members reiterated the numbers released by the state last month that show local students improved performance in all four areas of state high school assessments - algebra, biology, English and government - and outperforming state averages in all those areas except English.

The graduation rate is also up while the dropout rate has steadily declined since 2000, when the rate was 5.55 percent. Last year's rate was 2.21 percent.

"The most crucial factor in the students' success is what's occurring in the classrooms every day," said board President Edward Forrest.

More Washington County students are taking the SAT, according to data supplied by county schools.

While 574 students took the test in 2000, 725 took the test last year. And they're scoring slightly above state and national averages. County students posted a combined average score last year of 1028 on the test, while both the state and national averages were 1026.

More students are also seeking advanced placement courses as well. In 2003, 1,065 students were enrolled in advanced placement courses. This year, 1,677 students are enrolled in the courses.

And more local students - 68 percent - are seeking post-high school studies, school officials said.

While the school system is working to expand its program offerings, population growth presents a major challenge.

Chief Operating Officer William Blum said his initial growth projections had been based on the state's projected growth rate of 0.665 percent for Washington County - but the actual growth rate in the schools is 2.3 percent this year.

He now projects an additional growth rate of 2.6 percent next year - equivalent to 519 students. "That's the size of an average elementary school," he said.

With 11 schools already enrolling more than their rated capacity, school officials are looking at increased use of portable classrooms and construction of several new schools to accommodate all the students, he said.

That translates into a total increase of $122.7 million in the school system's fiscal 2006 capital budget request, according to information from the school system.

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