Enrollment in Montgomery County Public Schools is expected to exceed 159,000 students this school year—a record high—as the student population becomes the most diverse in district history, according to data presented Monday to the county Board of Education.
The capacity of county schools to handle the student population has lagged behind the increase in enrollment in seven of the last eight years, according the report, which means the board needs to begin looking for long term solutions, Superintendent Jack Smith said.
“We need to serve all of these students well,” Smith said, who suggested the board start thinking of viable solutions for overcrowding in a resourceful, beneficial way. Such solutions could include offsite career training in high schools and rooftop playgrounds at elementary schools.
MCPS enrollment has increased steadily by a total of more than 21,000 students since 2007, according to the report presented by James Song, director of facilities management. The majority of that growth has been in elementary schools, but now it’s beginning to transfer to secondary schools, Song said. “We’ve got two fronts to address,” Song said. “We have catch-up to do, but we also need to plan for growth in the secondary schools as well.”
Though it is a county-wide trend, Song said the Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Montgomery Blair and Clarksburg high school clusters are some of those with the fastest-growing and largest elementary populations that are beginning to move into upper grades.
“Certain clusters are obviously experiencing more growth,” Song said.
This year’s demographics show a continuing transition: the percentage of Hispanic students surpassed white students—30 percent to 29 respectively—, followed by African-American students at 21 percent, Asians at 14 percent and 5 percent of students who identify as two or more races. There has also been a steady increase in students who receive free and reduced-priced meals over the past eight years; last year one-third of all students received the meals, totaling 54,542.
Song said his department has worked to convert as many spaces in current schools into classrooms as possible, to keep the use of portable classrooms to a minimum. Despite the growth of nearly 2,000 students each year in the county, the number of portables in use has stayed constant, at just under 400 in the last five years.
“If the enrollment continues to grow at this alarming rate, we’re fearing the number of portable classrooms will go up,” Song said, but he noted that some schools don’t have land available to house them.
Though the school budget for new construction was funded adequately this year, board members agreed that the funding only begins to deal with the enrollment growth, not solve the problem.
“We are growing at a very fast clip and the money is just not keeping up with the projects that we need to have in the pipeline,” board member Pat O’Neill (District 3) said of Bethesda. She said she remembers when B-CC High School served 1,200 students—today its population is double that at 2,400.
Board member Jill Ortman-Fouse (at-large) said the state should contribute more funding for school construction. The Silver Spring resident said the county doesn’t currently receive proportionate funding for its population.
Board members also mentioned other options to consider to ease overcrowding, such as redistricting or transfer options for students.
“It’s kind of daunting when you look at these numbers,” board member Christopher Barclay (District 4) said, of Takoma Park. “Are there things we need to do from a policy perspective to help ourselves or create some level of relief? I just hope that we are willing to stay far enough ahead of it.”