'Honey, I grew the high school' Howard County: Large schools may be the future, but board is right to proceed carefully


AMONG THE occasionally frustrating features of government is its slow pace. Of course, going slow can be an asset, too, as it was when the Howard County Board of Education last week decided to delay a decision on whether to increase the capacity of two local high schools to 1,600 students apiece.

Board members wisely concluded that they needed more time to consider the ramifications of such a decision. A public hearing on the matter will be held Thursday, with a final decision not expected until Oct. 12. That gives the board additional time, though not much, to digest the impact of increasing the current capacity of high schools by a third, or 400 students.

Expansion of existing schools with additions or temporary classrooms may be the best compromise between controversial redistrictings and the cost of wholly new construction. Most important, it's a remedy endorsed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has no small say in where the money goes. Nevertheless, the decision to take such a step must be analyzed in light of the particulars of the schools involved.

School officials concluded in a recent study that increasing capacity does not adversely affect academic performance. Still, Howard County's director of high schools voices some concern about how larger capacities can change the atmosphere of schools. Larger schools tend to develop a "herding mentality," Eugene Streagle says, where students are treated more like numbers.

Also, adding classrooms and desks may be logistically simple, but the size of cafeterias, gymnasiums, hallways and parking lots must be factored in. Then there is the problem of accommodating students' extra-curricular needs. More students means greater competition for limited spots.

A school is more than the achievement scores it generates. A sound educational environment depends on several factors that must be carefully considered before a change as radical as a substantial increase in capacity is made. Howard County has been fortunate that a philosophy of keeping its schools relatively small has been preserved. Even if new cost realities alter the system's standing recipe for success, the final product -- the education of young people -- must not be eroded.

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