School enrollment in Montgomery County could jump by about 700 over projections
Strongest growth seen at kindergarten level; nine clusters still exceed 100-percent capacity
By the time official enrollment numbers are tallied in about three weeks, Montgomery County Public Schools could be dealing with one more elementary school's worth of students than officials anticipated.
Roughly 145,000 students passed through the front doors on the first day of school Aug. 30, but the number likely will drop to about 144,000 by the end of the month because of students leaving the system early, according to the school system. The reduced figure still will represent a 2,200-student increase over last year's enrollment, and about 700 more students than planners projected earlier for the 2010-11 school year.
The strongest area of growth in the school system has been in the lower grades, where the county's own mini-baby boom about five years ago is finally beginning to show up in schools, said Bruce Crispell, the director of long-range planning for county's public schools. The mini-boom has been larger than expected, and since the county implemented full-day kindergarten systemwide in 2006, the number of kindergarten students also has grown steadily, Crispell said.
Of the 700 students who make up the difference between the projection, which was made in October 2009, and the estimated final number, about 300 are at the kindergarten level, Crispell said.
The earlier estimate of student enrollment stood at 143,309, up from the 141,777 who attended last year. The system has 200 schools.
Projections made in 2008 for the 2009-10 school year underestimated enrollment by about 1,300 students.
"We have this continuing space crunch, mostly at elementary schools," Crispell said. "It definitely will add more challenges for adding capacity at elementary schools."
About 90 percent of the portable units used by the school system 376 out of 415 are at elementary schools. The number of portables this year actually represents a slight decline from the 437 used last year.
"We get new schools that have portables after only a year or two," said Steve Augustino, the capital improvement program chairman for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, which has formed a committee to try to understand how the school system projects enrollment.
Seven hundred students represents less than 1 percent of the overall school population, Augustino noted, but when the growth concentrates in a few areas the results can be acute.
The increase in young students in the school system is concentrated in downcounty schools, with the spike in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Walter Johnson school clusters particularly pronounced. The Clarksburg cluster comes in third in terms of elementary school student growth.
The Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster lifted its residential building moratorium in January because of approved capital improvement projects over a six-year period at Westbrook, Somerset and Rock Creek elementary schools. Before those improvements were approved, planners were projecting enrollment in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster to be at 137 percent capacity in 2014-15.
But nine school clusters have at least 105-percent student capacity at the elementary school level, requiring developers to pay a "facilities" fee to support elementary school infrastructure when they build. The nine clusters are Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Walter Johnson, Richard Montgomery, Northwest, Northwood, Paint Branch, Rockville, Thomas Wootton and Quince Orchard.
Rockville municipal government also has imposed its own growth test for schools, meaning several development areas are closed, including most of the section served by the Richard Montgomery cluster, Crispell said.
The projected drop in student enrollment from Aug. 30 to the end of September is about average, Crispell noted. Every year, anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 kids who show up on the first day of school aren't still enrolled in a month's time, he said.
Despite the perception by planners that apartments bring relatively few students into the school system, the opposite has proved to be true, said Therese Salus, the area vice president for Walt Whitman, Walter Johnson, Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Wheaton for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations.
"Apartments do produce students. And that's where we're getting a lot of students," Salus said.
The Board of Education eventually must decide if it wants "mega schools" with large student populations or a higher number of smaller schools, Salus said. One solution to the elementary school problem, she said, would be to spread out growth evenly across schools as much as possible.
Any new schools that are built, she added, should follow the example of Somerset Elementary School, which had a third floor built when the school was modernized in 2005 to allow for four additional classrooms in case the student population expanded.
For the 2011-16 Capital Improvements Program, a total of $1.38 billion worth of facilities upgrades and construction has been approved by the Board of Education and the County Council.
"They need to build schools that can accommodate growth easily," Salus said.