commentary] Harford schools should take advantage of the extra space

Harford County Public Schools is in the midst of a situation that would have been difficult to predict 15 or 20 years ago: enrollment is declining.

The number of students isn't down by all that much this year compared to last year. The number of students attending public schools in Harford County decreased by 354 from the 2011-12 academic year to this year. In a system that serves in excess of 37,000 students, that's a fraction of a percent.

The issue isn't that enrollment declined for a single year, or even two years in a row, but it has declined by a few hundred or so students every year since 2004, which means the trend has been in effect for nearly a decade.

Not only was the trend unanticipated, plans were made for enrollment to go in the other direction. There was good reason to make such a prediction. Changes brought about as a result of action by the BRAC Commission expanded the staffing levels at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The result was expected to be an expanded population, and increased enrollment.

Owing to a variety of factors, the BRAC boom wasn't as robust as had been predicted. Harford didn't lose much population, but it didn't gain either, and historically public school enrollment increases have been driven by new families moving into the county.

Meanwhile, planning for an increased population resulted in the construction of new schools and the upgrading of old schools with extra space. As it stands after the most recent count of students attending Harford County Public Schools, there is enough space for 6,300 more students than are enrolled.

Now there's a caveat that goes along with capacity vs. enrollment comparisons, namely that even as the size of buildings doesn't change from year to year, their state rated capacities can and do change.

Still, that there is space for 6,300 more students than are attending, is a strong indication that something isn't being managed properly.

It's worth adding a little perspective to just how many 6,300 extra desks is.

It's more than twice what would be needed if every student attending public schools in Somerset County (enrollment: 2,943) were to be shifted to Harford County.

It's also enough space that it would be possible to close the four elementary schools with the highest enrollment in the county (Youth's Benefit, 973; Homestead – Wakefield, 897; Abingdon, 882 and Deerfield, 793), plus the high and middle schools with the highest enrollment (Bel Air High, 1,647; and Bel Air Middle, 1,271) and the system would be overcrowded by roughly 200 students.

The Somerset County number is particularly interesting because it gives a rough comparison for how much of a population increase it would take to fill out the extra space. Somerset County has a population of a little more than 22,000 people, resulting in enough students to fill fewer than half the available desks in Harford County Public Schools. While an accurate extrapolation isn't possible, a very rough estimate puts the level of population growth necessary to fill the 6,300 empty seats in Harford County Public schools in the 45,000 range.

That would constitute an extraordinary increase in population, even if it were to occur over a span of five or six years.

At this point, the projection is for the county to resume growing in such a way that school enrollment will also increase. It is very unlikely, however, that enrollment will grow enough any time soon to fill all the space available. In the meantime, the school system should take advantage of the extra space to make the kinds of changes in boundary lines and program offerings to head off overcrowding in individual schools in the coming years.

To date, the school system has failed to do this, as it continues to have a few overcrowded schools even as there are substantially more vastly under capacity schools. It may take some effort to reconfigure school system boundaries to change this, but the luxury of extra space could be used to do things like phasing in boundary shifts grade by grade. In addition, it may be possible to use extra space for special programs like those offered at the overcrowded Harford Technical High School.

School system leaders should begin looking at this situation as an opportunity, rather than a curiosity.

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