Centennial Tight? So Try Wilde Lake

COMMENT

March 07, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS | KEVIN THOMAS,Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

From a distance, you can just about make out the faint and irritating whine coming from Centennial High School these days.

In an article in The Sun by staff writer Lan Nguyen last week, the principal, teachers and students were quoted complaining about overcrowding at the school.

With 200 more students than the school should hold, things have been getting a little unbearable. Students are taught in portable classrooms outside the school. There are "traffic" jams in the hallways. And a student dance threatens to explode with too many revelers. It's not pleasant, and it may get worse.

But what I find so exasperating about the complaints of overcrowding from Centennial is a suspicion I have that not many parents of those students would be willing to send their kids to Wilde Lake High School, where crowding isn't a problem at all.

Parents in several neighborhoods that are being considered for redistricting to Wilde Lake have made it clear they consider the school sub-par because of comparatively lower test scores and an unusual academic program there. The school board has begun holding public hearings that promise to shed no more light on the situation than already exists.

It's a shame that, if in fact Wilde Lake has slipped badly, little has been done to turn it around. Unfortunately, I suspect little will be done to improve the situation through the redistricting process.

It could be done. However, I don't feel the school board or the community has the gumption to do it.

What it would involve is a real attempt to come to grips with issues involving race and social class, and the priority we should give to fostering a balance that ensures equal educational opportunity. That's an old idea that comes out of the civil rights movement. You don't hear much about it anymore.

Instead, you hear even well-meaning people attempting to rationalize and skirt issues of class and race, suggesting that there is another way to address the problem of low educational attainment within the communities where it exists.

I fear that has happened here.

School Board Chairman Dana Hanna, who I am convinced has his heart in the right place, says he cannot back a redistricting approach that would have as a priority creating a racial and social-economic balance where possible.

Mr. Hanna calls it the "peanut-butter approach": By spreading the black and white students around, you can improve a school's overall test scores, the theory goes.

I would suggest another way of looking at the situation, one that doesn't emphasize the race of students, but focuses on their social condition as a function of poor academic achievement.

Part of the problem at Wilde Lake is not the number of minority rTC students, but the high concentration of low-income families near the school due to public housing patterns. Centennial has very few low-income students because there is virtually no public housing nearby. Redistricting represents an opportunity to shift the balance at Wilde Lake or any school that has a high concentration of low-income students.

The redistricting proposal the school system has recommended would improve overall test scores at Wilde Lake. But an alternative proposal, one that would include redistricting the communities of Longfellow, Beaverbrook and Dorsey Hall, would even more.

The fact that the percentage of minority students would decline at Wilde Lake High School under the alternative plan is not as important as the fact that overall student test scores would improve dramatically, based on the school system's estimates.

Anyone who says that having a large number of highly motivated, strongly academic students in a school doesn't change the total environment -- including having positive effects on less advantaged students -- doesn't understand what happens in most schools.

Mr. Hanna says the problems of the less advantaged can be addressed by focusing more resources on schools where test scores warrant.

While I agree that the school system needs to take a careful look at the issue of better distributing resources, so far that has meant mainly making sure that each school has what all the others do.

It has not meant pouring more resources into schools where the needs are greater. And, given our current focus on me-first, I doubt that this is going to change. Furthermore, I don't believe more resources alone will solve the problem.

But having a real diversity of students, including one based on the social-economic background of students, can create the kind of school atmosphere where students excel.

And given the school system's supposed commitment to diversity, this is the direction in which it needs to head.

Maybe those who make up the Centennial High School community can transfer the energy they're using on complaining, and make a difference that will really count.

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