Critics prepare to blast school rezoning plan

February 03, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Baltimore City Council; Baltimore City Schools/ROBERT CRONAN/STAFF GRAPHICStaff Writer

Baltimore's comprehensive school rezoning plan would result in ballooning enrollments at some middle schools, long bus rides for many students, and possibly increased rivalries and tension at schools that draw students from across town, critics say.

Parents angered by the first rezoning proposal in nearly 20 years are expected to fire away at formal hearings tonight and tomorrow.

To date, much of the attention has been focused on the proposed elimination of seven popular K-8 programs, including those at the high-profile Roland Park and Barclay Elementary-Middle schools.

The K-8 proposal proved so unpopular that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and school board President Phillip H. Farfel say it stands little chance of going into effect, though parents remain suspicious.

But the rhetoric has nearly overshadowed details of a plan that would shut down nine schools and change the boundaries of 57 others, affecting thousands of children.

"I think they should scrap this plan and start over again," says Robert L. Wilson, president of the 60-school Baltimore City Council of PTAs.

That sentiment was shared by parents at a series of packed meetings in December and January.

The City Council agrees and has asked that the board take another year to craft a plan that would go into effect in September 1994.

School officials and staffers, meanwhile, say that rezoning is long overdue because of dramatic changes in the city's school population in the past 20 years. They also say some parts of the plan were rushed because of impatience from the City Council.

The school board is expected to vote on the plan in April.

City Council members and education activists cite the following hot spots in the plan:

* Elimination of K-8 programs:

This part of the plan has received the most attention. It would eliminate popular K-8 programs at seven city schools.

Parents argue that the K-8 programs offer a more stable environment for their children and say the test scores bear them out.

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey counters that, while the K-8s do better than the city's regular middle schools, they lag behind suburban middle schools. Done right, he says, middle schools can better give young adolescents the types of specialized programs and services they need.

* Ballooning middle school enrollments:

In an attempt to make the most efficient use of the city's large middle school buildings, the new zoning plan dramatically increases enrollments at some of the schools.

Greenspring Middle School's projected enrollment, for example, would jump to 2,002 students from the current 946, according to data prepared for the City Council.

School planners say they were forced to use many large middle school buildings, some of which now operate far below capacity.

Critics argue that mammoth middle schools are a recipe for chaos and fly in the face of research that says smaller is better.

"It's just too much for the kids at this level," says Randolph T. Gray Sr., president of Greenspring's PTO, which would absorb students from Pimlico Middle and from Calloway and Ashburton elementaries. "I think it's going to be mass hysteria. You're going to have more fights."

* Long bus rides:

Some parents complain that their children would have to travel long distances on Mass Transit Administration buses to get to their new middle schools. In some cases, there are schools closer to their neighborhoods.

For example, students who attend Margaret Brent Elementary School now graduate to Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden, within walking distance for many. But the rezoning plan would send Margaret Brent students to William H. Lemmel Middle School, miles away and to the west of Druid Hill Park.

Parents "think it's ludicrous," says Charles Richards, PTO president at Margaret Brent, who adds that some children would have to catch two or three buses to attend Lemmel. Parental involvement also would suffer, he warns.

School officials say they tried to minimize travel distances and the number of students who would have to ride buses.

But some new, more efficient bus routes could be necessary, says Nat Harrington, school department spokesman.

* Cross-town rivalries:

Some parents warn that the rezoning proposal could heighten community tensions by zoning elementary school students to middle schools across town, aggravating traditional east-west rivalries.

"The nature of the middle school child is such that we don't need to throw fuel on the fire by bringing neighborhood rivalries into the pot," says James J. Gardner, a longtime parent activist.

He and others cited potential problems involving cross-town transfers to Lombard and Booker T. Washington middle schools.

* Special-education school closures:

Parents of severely handicapped students are concerned about plans to close four separate special-education schools. Students those four -- Sharp-Leadenhall, Harbor View, Lois T. Murray and Dr. Lillie M. Jackson -- would be rezoned to regular schools.

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