The Montgomery County board of education has introduced a new policy on changing enrollments and school closings to replace the existing "small schools" policy the board has used as a guideline for closing schools.
The board has sent the draft of the policy to the 400 principals and PTA presidents in the county and has scheduled a public hearing on it for Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m.
After five years of wrestling with the problems of declining enrollment, the board said its new policy will avoid some of the pitfalls the system has already come across.
The new policy will allow the board to consider not only the size of the school but other factors as well.
"The original small school policy was just that," board member Verna Fletcher explained. "It focused on small and elementary schools. In fact, we should be looking at all our schools. All of them are affected by declining enrollment."
Declining enrollment "hit everybody pretty suddenly," said Kenneth Muir, school spokesman. "Even school officials were not as aware of declining birth rates as they should have been. you also had the sewer moratorium, which slowed building, and ridiculous interest rates, and the whole thing got accelerated," Muir said.
The new policy will allow more careful planning. Some of the schools that were closed or are being studied for possible closing were recently renovated.
In 1972, when the system first noted the declining enrollment "people didn't think it was going to hit that hard." Fletcher said. She added that on the list schools to be studied for possible closing is Holiday Park Elementary in the Kensington-Wheaton area. The school has an auditory program that was installed two to three years ago. Kensington Elementary, also on the list, was recently renovated.
Among the schools that have been closed in the past two years were Burnt Mills Elementary, which was very modern, according to Fletcher, and Fernwood Elementary, which was the newest school in its area.
Fletcher said that recent major renovations on a school would not stop the board from closing it if necessary, but any school on the list of schools to be studied for possible closing would not receive major renovations until its fate was decided.
In the past five years, the board has closed 18 schools. The first was in June of 1972 when enrollment in public schools was 126,207. The next was in June of 1975 when enrollment was 123,752. In June of 1976, another seven elementary schools were closed when enrollment dropped to 121,439; last June another nine shut down when enrollment declined again to 117,630. In the last six years, enrollment in public schools has dropped by 14,000 students, and it is now affecting not only elementary schools but the upper grades as well.
"The birth rate decline began to be evident in elementary schools and it's moving up," Fletcher said. "Now it's evident in junior highs."
Under the new policy, all sizes and levels of schools will be eligible for closing. Until now, the board concentrated on small schools because teachers are assigned to schools according to a student ratio designated each year by the school budget, board staff assistant Clifford Baacke said. The smaller the school, the fewer the teachers the board has assigned there. As a result, one teacher would have to teach two elementary grades, and school services would be cut back.
Small schools, however, often served other valuable needs or found ways to better utilize a small staff.
"One reason we didn't close Arlawn was because the children were being taught according to their needs," Fletcher said. "The children were mixed and there were overlaps in grades. If you have five teachers, you can divide them up more effectively that way."
Fletcher said that schools serve important roles in the community beyond the education function.
She said that New Hampshire Estates, a school for primary gades, provides help for the Quebec Terrace Apartment complex in Silver Spring. "The people had no money, there were language difficulties, family squabbles and a high rate of vandalism," she said. "It was becoming a difficult place to live." Fletcher said the community parents often rely on the school staff for support in problem situations.
"The school staff directs them to social services," she said. "People who spoke Spanish call the school, and there staff members who speak Spanish to talk with them. The school really helped the home situation."
"The old policy didn't say close small schools and don't look at anything else," Fletcher said. "But it looked at size first and then considered other factors."