The teen machine Enrollment boom: Maryland schools had better brace for a shift from toddlers to teens


AN ACQUAINTANCE, who happens to like children, nevertheless holds to this credo: Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. That's not a criticism of youth, but a dollop of realism.

With that in mind, Maryland had better begin planning for a teen boom just beyond the turn of the century. Today's problems of elementary school crowding and day-care shortages will mature into other concerns a few years hence: a lack of secondary school space and teen jobs and a need for programs to address drug abuse and crime.

Recent figures from the state Office of Planning show an amazing reversal in enrollment trends. Whereas Maryland absorbed 35 percent more students in grades K-6 from 1984-1994, that age group will see nearly no growth from 1994-2004.

Conversely, students in grades 7-12, whose numbers declined slightly in the decade following 1984, will mushroom by 25 percent from 1994-2004. Planners attribute this to factors that began transforming Maryland, and the nation, in the 1980s: delayed child-bearing, greater immigration from abroad, increased interstate migration. The baby boom of the '80s becomes the teen torrent of 2000.

Politicians, school officials, taxpayers and parents, not to mention the children themselves, all share a stake in the way Maryland prepares for this transformation.

A legislature now struggling to keep up with classroom demand, even as it doles out $100 million a year for construction, increasingly will have to address the need at the high school level. The pressure on police may also multiply with the number of teens, who typically commit most petty crime.

Other issues will manifest themselves: A heavier demand for teen employment. A greater need for recreational facilities with appeal to youth. A bumper crop of very green motorists.

No state east of the Rockies expects greater school growth than the Free State through 2005, the U.S. Department of Education says. But the way Maryland prepares for the baby boomlet's march into young adulthood will have profound implications, not only for these kids, but for the future of this state.

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