Board undecided on student transfer

March 15, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writer

The Howard County school board gave mixed signals last night as to whether it will transfer half of the students enrolled in the seriously emotionally disturbed program to Stevens Forest Elementary School.

Last night's work session came a week after more than 60 Stevens Forest parents urged the board to leave all of the students -- if just for a year -- at Waterloo Elementary School, where the program has existed for the past 20 years.

Part of the redistricting proposal being considered by the board calls for the students enrolled in the program to be divided between Stevens Forest and Waterloo.

The program is considered to be a model for the state. It is designed to serve children with emotional problems severe enough to require a full-time psychologist, a crisis intervention 00 counselor to deal with their outbursts and an additional guidance counselor at the school.

The exact number of students scheduled to be in next year's program is not yet known, but school officials last night said there likely would be a total of 11 to 15 students to be split between the two schools.

The assignment of special education students is just one aspect of the school system's redistricting proposal, but it was the primary focus of last night's meeting.

The remainder of the plan would affect relatively few elementary school children but would force the transfer of more than 550 middle school students.

Redistricting at the high school level has been postponed until next year when two new secondary schools are expected to open.

The school system adjusts its district boundary lines almost every year to adapt to the rapidly rising student population and the opening of new schools. System wide enrollment is expected to rise by about 11,000 in the next 10 years, to 47,00 students by 2004.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the entire redistricting proposal March 23.

Although all five board members spent more than two hours last night asking pointed questions about whether Stevens Forest is an appropriate location for half of the students enrolled in the seriously emotionally disturbed program, none said they were completely opposed to the proposal.

At the end of the board's discussion, members Linda Johnston and Sandra French said they would vote for the current plan. The others did not make an overt commitment one way or the other.

"This plan was well thought out. I don't have a problem with assuming that five or six students can be moved to an alternative site," Ms. Johnston said. "This gives us time to look more at the home school situation."

Other board members expressed more reservations about the switch, questioning administrators about every specific complaint raised by parents during last week's public hearing. Even school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey agreed that the proposal was not ideal, but said it was the best option that could be found.

"We made our recommendation knowing that there is no perfect answer," Dr. Hickey said. "All of the conversation that the board has had going back and forth acknowledges that it is a very difficult problem. There are a number of factors that influenced our decision."

School officials have said that Stevens Forest is one of only three schools in the county with enough self-contained space to accept some of Waterloo's emotionally disturbed students. They also said they wanted to base the program in an East Columbia elementary school, rather than in a school located west of Route 29, because the eastern region of Columbia is scheduled to have enough empty classroom space for 455 students by 2005.

But Stevens Forest parents have asked the board not to move half of the program to their school, arguing that the is not enough closed classroom space, and that there is not enough time for staff members and students to be adequately trained for next fall.

They asked that, at the very least, implementation of the proposal be delayed for a year.

Board member Stephen Bounds offered a proposal far more drastic than anything suggested even by Stevens Forest parents -- phasing out the Waterloo program entirely. His idea -- which he did not expressly support but said was just for consideration as an alternative -- would require local schools to keep students who otherwise would be sent to the central seriously emotionally disturbed program.

Several other board members, however, said his idea was one that would require far more study than could be done in the

week before they have to make a final decision on redistricting.

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