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Harford schools preparing ‘balancing enrollment’ process to tackle present and future school capacity issues

The Harford County school system is developing a plan — with support from analytical and planning contractors — to balance student enrollment in schools throughout the county, as five schools are already over capacity and enrollment is expected to grow in the next seven years.

“The purpose of the enrollment balancing process is to ensure that the schools and programs maintain capacity utilization levels that are beneficial to all students in the district,” said Kate Doiron, a senior Geographic Information Systems analyst with FLO Analytics.

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Harford County Public Schools entered into a contract with FLO and its subcontractor, Philadelphia-based Bloom Planning, in August as school system officials began the months-long planning and information-gathering process for balancing enrollment.

Officials with HCPS and their contractor partners will spend the next year gathering community input through surveys and open house meetings and then developing recommendations for the superintendent and Board of Education’s approval. A final decision by the board is slated to happen in February of 2022.

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Doiron and other representatives of FLO and Bloom joined the top HCPS officials who have been involved in the data-gathering process so far — such as Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, and facilities planner Missy Valentino — for a presentation to the school board Dec. 21.

Student enrollment in HCPS dropped by more than 1,000 this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and all-virtual classes to keep students and staff safe. Officials expect that many parents, frustrated with virtual learning, shifted their children to private or home schooling, plus other parents have not signed their kids up for pre-K or kindergarten programs, Brown reported to the school board in early December.

Enrollment stood, as of the annual Sept. 30 count, at 37,362 for the 2020-21 school year. Harford County Public Schools had 38,445 students at the same time a year ago, a gain of 617 from the 2018 figures, when enrollment stood at 37,828.

Officials expect enrollment will grow in the current decade, despite the pandemic, with 39,307 projected students as of 2027.

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“We know that there is increasing enrollment over time, and even predicted into the future,” said Doiron, who noted a projected increase in demand for special education services as well as more enrollment in pre-kindergarten programs, including full-day programs.

Moratoriums on residential development have been enacted in the areas around four elementary schools, including Bel Air, Homestead-Wakefield, Havre de Grace and Red Pump, as well as Bel Air Middle School, as their student populations have reached 110% capacity, or are expected to reach that figure in the next three years.

Doiron presented a map showing elementary schools in the Bel Air area at 100% capacity or greater as of 2019, with that figure expanding to schools in northern Harford County and the Joppa and Havre de Grace by 2026.

“We’re looking at trying to address this issue through this enrollment balancing process,” she said.

Guiding principles

Doiron and her cohorts discussed the steps they have taken so far in the balancing enrollment process and presented a set of seven guiding principles to the board, seeking the board’s approval of those principles.

“These guiding principles are the backbone, the foundation for Harford County [Public Schools], in decisions that we’re going to have to make in order to make any boundary adjustments,” said Brown, who noted that the principles were developed with input from HCPS’ “various internal and external stakeholders,” regarding their priorities for the school system.

The seven principles, which the board approved unanimously, state that officials will:

  • Implement a transparent and inclusive boundary review process that fosters the widespread and ongoing engagement of Harford County’s families and community members.
  • Take a district-wide perspective by considering the full scope of individual school capacities and student population projections to balance enrollment.
  • Operate in the best interest of students by prioritizing equitable access to safe, high-quality educational environments for all.
  • Consider the accessibility of regional programs and signature academic programs and the long-term needs of special populations (e.g., students with special needs, early learners, etc.) with each decision.
  • Maintain neighborhood schools that optimize proximity to home, prioritize safe, walkable passages to and from school, and take into account the boundaries of existing and planned community developments.
  • Consider transportation impacts and work towards limiting the amount of time required on a bus to 45 minutes or less.
  • Optimize operational efficiency and ensure the sustainable allocation of district resources with each decision.

The planners anticipate putting out community surveys in January with the initial process of soliciting community input going through March, followed by open houses — currently expected to be virtual — in March and May, and presenting the initial recommendations to the superintendent in June.

The summer and fall would see more public hearings and a recommendation presented to the school board, with a final decision by next February.

The guiding principles, approved by the board Dec. 21, will serve as “something for us to come back to as a set of touchstones, to remember what we think are the key priorities” during the balancing enrollment process, Ingrid Boucher, of Bloom Planning, noted.

Boundary adjustments

Board members brought up a number of questions and concerns about the process, such as how the current boundaries for school attendance areas would be adjusted, and whether they should be adjusted at all.

“I know that the prevailing thought would be, most of our students like the schools that they’re in, and so the least disruption would be the best route to go,” member Carol Mueller said.

Member Tamera Rush questioned whether officials are “looking at the historical boundaries because we’re attached to them, or because it’s the right thing to do,” noting that she appreciates the sixth principle of limiting the time students spend on school buses as her own children typically spend more than 45 minutes on their bus.

Member David Bauer, who represents the Fallston and Joppa areas in District B, said he suspects the majority of his constituents would prefer that officials use prior attendance area boundaries as “a starting point” for balancing enrollment.

“For myself in general, I favor more of starting from scratch, because I don’t know what all inputs went into boundary conditions in the past,” he said.

Doiron reiterated the fifth guiding principle of maintaining neighborhood schools to which students can walk.

“Technically, you could move a certain neighborhood of students to the next school over that has more capacity, but what if it’s a really long bus ride for those students to go that way?” she asked.

Doiron noted that many current attendance boundaries take students’ proximity to schools into account, and that boundaries would not be changed for schools that are not over capacity, rather planners would focus on schools that have a higher capacity.

Brown also stressed that planners are “looking to maintain neighborhood schools and making sure that students can walk safely to school.”

“It’s a very complex process when you’re looking to adjust attendance areas, but we’re looking to minimize the impact and not have more kids on the bus than students that are currently walking to their home school,” he said.

Officials don’t currently plan to shift students who live near their neighborhood schools, “because we don’t want them to start jumping on buses,” but officials will look at students closer to attendance area perimeters “to see what adjustments that we need to make” in accordance with the seventh guiding principle to ensure operational efficiency and sustainable resource allocation, Brown said.

Board Vice President Rachel Gauthier thanked those who have been involved so far, including school principals who “feel their communities — they live their communities.” She stressed that balancing enrollment will be “a long process, and everybody needs to have some patience and be willing to talk it through.”

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“This not going to be an easy process,” she said. “There is not going to be a moment where we make everybody happy, but we do have to look at school capacity and we do have to look at our neighborhoods and where things are growing and where things aren’t, and the fact that we don’t want kids on the bus forever and a day.”

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Gauthier emphasized that “we are going to come out of this COVID nightmare at some point, and we are going to put kids back on the buses and we need to make sure they’re not on the bus for an hour.”

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