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Fewer students mean more empty seats in Harford Schools

There are fewer students in Harford County Public Schools this year than last, a trend school officials say will continue. One place where enrollment isn't down is Bel Air High, above, which now has the highest enrollment of the 10 Harford high schools.
There are fewer students in Harford County Public Schools this year than last, a trend school officials say will continue. One place where enrollment isn't down is Bel Air High, above, which now has the highest enrollment of the 10 Harford high schools. (AEGIS FILE PHOTO / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Total enrollment in Harford County Public Schools dipped again this school year and is unlikely to show any gains in the foreseeable future, according to the latest annual enrollment report released this week.

The school system lost 299 students between Sept. 30, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2014 as total enrollment fell from 37,842 students to 37,543, a decline of 0.79 percent, Cornell Brown, HCPS assistant superintendent for operations, told school board members Monday night.

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The Harford school system lost 135 students between 2012 and 2013, 245 between 2011 and 2012 and 172 between 2010 and 2011, according to previous annual enrollment reports, an average of 170 students annually over the past five years.

Harford's school district has fallen to eighth in enrollment in Maryland, behind Frederick County, where public school enrollment exceeded Harford's by almost 3,000 students in 2013, according to the Maryland Department of Education. Harford's population still exceeds Frederick County's by about 8,000 residents:249,2015 versus 241,409, according to census figures. That gap, however, has been closing since the last full census in 2010.

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The persistent declines are reflected in smaller numbers of students at some, though not all, individual schools, school board members noted. In addition, state funding formulas are weighted toward enrollment, as is the state mandated annual local funding requirement called maintenance of effort.

"The numbers are what they are, and it begs the question I've raised for a number of years as you look out at the capacity we have and the actual enrollment they're going in opposite directions," board member James Thornton said.

Thornton noted enrollment at some high schools has fallen to 60 percent and, though he said he understands "the concept of community schools, etc." he also suggested the school board hasn't directed "enough focus and attention" to the conundrum of fewer students and the same number of schools.

"How do we reconcile operating of more physical plants than we have students sitting in the seats in these schools?" he asked, adding that while he may have asked a rhetorical question that couldn't be answered that night, "it's a concern...how do we deal with the recognition of the physical facilities we have versus the enrollment projections as we look out over the next several years?"

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According to the enrollment report, there are about 1,800 more elementary school seats than students, 2,000 excess middle school seats and 2,300 excess high school seats, more than 6,100 in all.

Enrollment at three of the 33 elementary schools exceeds the building's state rated capacity, while two others are at capacity. Hickory Elementary, north of Bel Air, at 108 percent, is the most crowded, followed by Homestead-Wakefield in Bel Air and Youth's Benefit in Fallston at 103 percent each. A replacement for the latter, which will have a higher capacity, is under construction and expected to be complete in two years. Both Emmorton and Ring Factory schools in the Bel Air South area have enrollments matching their capacities.

North Bend Elementary near Jarrettsville is the least crowded elementary school at 63 percent of capacity, followed by Norrisville, 73 percent; Havre de Grace, 76 percent; and Roye-Williams in Oakington, 78 percent. All others fall between 81 and 99 percent.

Enrollments at nine middle schools run from 77 percent, Aberdeen and Fallston, to 95 percent, Bel Air, with Patterson Mill at 94 percent. Bel Air also has the largest enrollment, 1,251 students, with Southampton, which is also in Bel Air, close behind at 1,213, although Southampton is at 79 percent of capacity.

Harford Technical High School, which draws students from all over the county, has 1,022 students, exceeding its capacity by 111 percent. School officials pointed out there have been a number of studies ongoing concerning the need for a second technical high school or expansion of the existing one or an increase in technical programs at some less crowded schools.

Among the other nine high schools, only Bel Air, which has the largest number of students, 1,670, is at capacity. Joppatowne, 62 percent, and Havre de Grace, 68 percent, are the least crowded, with Fallston at 70 percent and Edgewood at 76 percent. Aberdeen High, which has a countywide magnet math and science program, is at 86 percent with 1,444 students; C. Milton Wright near Bel Air is at 85 percent with 1,425 students; and Patterson Mill near Bel Air is at 94 percent with 871 students. North Harford High with 1,298 students is at 81 percent of capacity.

The latest enrollment figures for Harford show total elementary enrollment declined by 130 students to 17,508, middle school enrollment declined by 135 students to 8,417 and high school enrollment declined by 53 students to 11,407.

Two places where enrollment did gain were at John Archer School, which serves students, and at the alternative education program offered through the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen. John Archer's enrollment grew by seven students to 119 and the alternative education program grew by 12 students to 93.

Brown and Ariana Langford, who presented the enrollment report to the school board, said their earlier projections for this year's enrollment fell close to the mark. Variables used in projections include home building trends, graduation rates and county demographics, of which the most heavily weighted is the county's annual birth rate.

Langford said 90 to 95 percent of the birth rate "shows up in kindergarten five years later." This school year, the system-wide kindergarten class is about 2,600, and Langford said "the incoming kindergarten classes will be smaller than the outgoing fifth grade classes."

She explained the county is projected to show a slight decline in birth rate over the next four years, which will translate into a corresponding slight decline in elementary school enrollment that will eventually be reflected in middle and high school enrollment.

By next fall, Brown and Langford said, they expect total enrollment to decline by another 334 students, to 37,209. The declines will be most pronounced in the elementary grades, 334 fewer students, while middle school enrollment is projected to increase by 119 students, and high school enrollment is projected to decline by 150.

Langford said the projected middle school "bubble" will eventually work its way through the high schools. Long-term prospects, however, are for continued overall declines at all levels, she and Brown noted.

"Right now, our class size ranges from 2,800 to 3,000 students by grade level," Brown said. "We'll see a trend for a number of years where that class size will, based on the data we have, drop to around 2,600 at the elementary level, instead of the 2,800 that we currently have."

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