School Border Wars

M. WILLIAM SALGANIK

February 20, 1993|By M. WILLIAM SALGANIK

This is the winter of our discontent. This is the season ofthe school border wars. These are the scenes we see:

* A 26-member advisory board in Harford County worked months to come up with school-redistricting proposals. Parents objected, and within a few days the committee proposed junking its own plan. ''What we have now is not going to fly,'' said co-chairwoman Beth Oleszczuk.

* In Anne Arundel County, where a plan to shift some students from Old Mill High to Meade High was scrapped earlier in the school year because of vocal opposition, 600 signed a petition opposing a proposal to move students from George Fox to Chesapeake Bay Middle School. ''To take our children out of their community into another community would not provide stability,'' said one of the parents, Theresa Snyder.

* ''I do not think that students that were expecting to go to a school with a reputation such as Centennial should have to go to a school with a reputation such as Wilde Lake's,'' wrote Grant Parsons of Ellicott City in a letter to the editor about a Howard TC County school boundary change. ''I feel that if it is necessary to expand Centennial, then that's what should be done.''

* ''You did not think about our children when you came up with this,'' Wennie Gibson from Lemmel Middle School, one of 400 angry Baltimore parents at a school-zoning hearing, shouted at officials. ''You have lost the trust of every parent in Baltimore City.''

Logical arguments on the need for improved efficiency, backed by charts and spreadsheets, compete with emotional arguments about the cohesion of neighborhoods and the danger of longer walks or bus rides. Race and class phobias are millimeters below the surface. Both sides -- the school bureaucrats with their projections and the parents with their fears -- say they are concerned about ''educational quality.''

Each proposed boundary change is different. Some make eminent sense, despite what the parents say. Others (such as the parts of the Baltimore plan that would have had sixth-graders transferring buses and spending nearly an hour each way going to and from school) are silly, even if the guys with the spreadsheets make the numbers come out right. (After a barrage of parent complaints, an abashed Baltimore Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said, ''There are some aspects of that plan, quite candidly, that when I'm sitting there I say to myself, 'How in the world did we come up with this?' ''

But while the particulars are different, here are three generalities worth keeping in mind:

* Some redistricting is inevitable. Mr. Parsons, the letter-writer from Ellicott City, may be willing to add on to Centennial High while classrooms at Wilde Lake High sit empty. Most taxpayers aren't so keen on that type of thing.

* Making judgments of school quality based on average test scores is a fallacy. Centennial High has higher average scores than Wilde Lake. That doesn't mean that any individual student

would do better at Centennial. The questions a parent needs to ask are: Does the new school have appropriate programs for my kid? If your daughter wants to take calculus, it's important that Wilde Lake offers calculus. If Wilde Lake has two calculus classes and Centennial has five, Centennial will have higher average math scores -- all those ''extra'' calculus students bring up the school-wide average -- but Wilde Lake may be just as good for calculus students.

* Racial and social integration is good. I'm not talking about busing students from one end of a county to another. In cases such as Centennial/Wilde Lake in Howard County and Old Mill/Meade in Anne Arundel, judicious drawing of lines through adjacent neighborhoods can bring kids from different communities together and improve -- not damage -- the quality of education.

The wrong actions by school officials can lead to increased racial and socio-economic isolation, which leads to problems. A case in point is actions (and, more often, inactions) by Baltimore County school officials (where to put new schools, where to put gifted programs, how to draw lines between neighborhoods) that increased school segregation (and, in turn, residential segregation) along the Liberty Road corridor.

In the mid-19th century, proponents of public schooling talked of the ''American common school,'' where children from different groups could meet, learn together and come to understand each other. That's still a goal worth pursuing.

M. William Salganik is editor of The Sunday Sun's Perspective section.

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