AS SCHOOL DISTRICTS locally and nationally brace for the arrival of 53.2 million students this fall, official talk of this "echo baby boom" may obscure the degree to which the current boom already has surpassed the more familiar one that followed World War II. In fact, school enrollments since the 1996-97 school year have been higher than they ever reached at the peak of the earlier baby boom. The numbers have kept climbing, and the growth is expected to continue unabated until 2008. The effects on the schools are all too visible -- in the proliferation of trailer-housed classrooms, in ever-larger classes and in a desperate search for teachers.
This region is far from the epicenter of this continuing population explosion -- the South and the West are growing fastest, and New York City, with immigration adding to other patterns, led the list with 131,920 more students in 1997 than in 1987. But the Washington suburbs have a hefty slice of the growth: Montgomery County over the same 10-year period gained 28,752 students, Prince George's County just under 24,000. And the pressures run directly counter to what most people think makes good schools: smaller class size, a highly qualified teacher corps and safe buildings.
In the medium to long term, these problems can be fixed. Good teachers can be trained and recruited, buildings built -- the president recently added to his long-standing call for 100,000 new teachers a demand for federal money to help localities build and renovate the nation's sagging stock. But meanwhile districts are too often reduced to competing with their neighbors or frantically hiring whoever is available. In the current scramble, school authorities and local governments need to keep an eye too on the longer-term work of preparing for next year's boom and the year after, lest the scramble in future years become completely unmanageable.