Schools divide by race, class, parent charges

January 24, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Barbara Strong Goss believes Howard County's elementary schools divide students by class and race. It is a system, she says, that has "separate but not so equal schools."

Armed with maps and markers, she is on a crusade to change the fundamental principles of school redistricting and the boundary lines that accompany it.

Ms. Strong Goss, an Ellicott City mother and a lawyer, took her proposals to the Board of Education and, Thursday, to the Howard County Human Rights Commission. She hopes to gain support for her plan to redistrict schools based on the socioeconomic levels of the students, not just on how crowded a school is.

"Intentionally or unintentionally, we have stacked the deck so that children in some schools are winners in an unfair race," she said.

She's finished a study of student composition in schools, using data from the Maryland School Performance Program (MSPP) Report and from the school system. Ms. Strong Goss relies on the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price lunches as a measure of the socioeconomic levels at a particular school.

While 5.9 percent of all county students are eligible for free and reduced price meals, "it is surprising that in a county with such a small percentage of low-income children, one finds so many individual schools with populations that in no way reflect the county norm," she said.

Certain elementary schools -- like Centennial Lane -- have fewer than one percent low-income students, but "others right next door [like Running Brook and St. John's Lane] have as many as 10 to 20 percent low-income students," she said.

Centennial Lane, with a 1.7 percent black student population, is in a community with primarily expensive homes. St. John's Lane and Running Brook are in neighborhoods with mixed housing, including apartment complexes, town houses and federally subsidized housing. St. John's Lane has a 14.3 percent black student population, while Running Brook has a 30.6 percent black student population.

"The boundaries could be easily redrawn to achieve socioeconomic and racial balance," she said.

Top school district officials and elected board members do not ++ find her ideas all that attractive.

"To move a lot of kids solely for the purpose of addressing a community social problem is something that's wrong," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

NB "Right now, I do not see any groundswell support for such a so

cial engineering scheme for Howard County," said school board Chairman Dana Hanna.

Mr. Hanna said that if the school system were to change boundaries based on socioeconomic lines, parents who oppose the move would simply do just that -- move. The school board would then have to redraw lines each year, he said.

"I don't think we do that bad a job, given some of the diversity we have in the area and the region," he said.

Of 30 elementary schools, almost half have fewer than 3 percent of their students on free and reduced price meals, according to the MSPP Report.

About 10 schools have from 10 to 20 percent of their students on free and reduced price meals.

Those 10 schools also have a higher percentage of black students -- one, Talbott Springs, has almost 40 percent black students.

"It appears that the strategy of focusing specific effort on meeting the educational needs of black and economically disadvantaged students has been translated into a strategy of concentrating them into a predetermined group of schools," said Ms. Strong Goss, a former White House correspondent who covered the Ford and Carter administrations for a Dallas newspaper.

School officials say some schools have less diversity than others because the schools are community-based, drawing students from the immediate neighborhoods in which schools are situated.

"The piece that becomes difficult is that the county doesn't have an evenly distributed mix of housing stock by socioeconomic level," said Mr. Hanna.

"I don't deny that [schools] are community-based, to a certain degree," Ms. Strong Goss said. "I'm questioning where they center it, where they're dividing boundaries for neighborhoods."

In the past, the school board has redistricted neighborhoods to achieve socioeconomic balance, said Deborah Kendig, who's been on the board for 10 years. When Atholton High School, for example, was redistricted years back, the school board voted to include portions of lower-income southern Howard County and more affluent Clemens Crossing in Columbia, she said.

Associate Superintendent Maurice Kalin, who is now in charge of redistricting, said he tries to change as little as possible when he redraws boundary lines.

"We try not to change schools appreciably," he said. "In general, we try to [enact] redistricting with a limited impact on test scores and race."

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