Children are not pegs to fit in holes

November 23, 1996|By Andrew Ratner

THE T-WORD -- that's ''t'' for taxes -- can pack an auditorium with angry residents in a hurry. But one might fill it even faster with the r-word -- that's ''r'' for redistricting schools.

Few plans ignite a community like talk of redrawing school boundaries to ease overcrowding. Maryland probably grapples with this more than most states, due to rapid suburban growth and atypically large school systems.

What Social Security reform is to Congress, redistricting is to boards of ed. ''It is one of the toughest things to get done,'' says Sue Buswell, executive director of the Maryland Association of ZTC Boards of Education. ''It is probably as hard as closing schools.''

Mysterious posters

Anne Arundel County is considering redistricting now, but has backed off similar proposals before. Howard County's civil reputation took a beating years ago when adults bickered over whose kids would attend which high school. And posters mysteriously appeared on utility poles in Harford County's Box Hill subdivision weeks ago warning of ''redistricting.'' The school superintendent assures that none is planned.

Historically in America, school boundaries have been redrawn for many reasons, including racial and socio-economic desegregation. But in central and southern Maryland this decade, the driving force has often been government's inability to keep up with the classroom demand created by the ''baby boomlet.'' Or, counties have space in older, poorer areas where new migrants are not moving.

Many ask why officials would authorize a lot of new housing in an area without adequate schools. It's a reasonable question, but don't hold your breath awaiting the answer.

It breaks a village

School administrators, budget-makers and planners think the solution is simple: Move the children to the empty spaces. On paper, it makes sense. And it would in real life, too, if kids were wooden pegs and schools were holes on a board. But to parents, redistricting ignores the impact on the place they live. .. To paraphrase the first lady, it breaks a village. Schools are one of the few institutions fusing these young, suburban bedroom communities together.

There is an underground information network about schools -- judgments of teachers and principals and programs -- that crackles through neighborhoods quicker than a news reporter can don his overcoat. People do not want their children moved to a school they believe is inferior; they often balk even at being transferred to a new school. And with statewide tests, perceptions are built on more than gossip and rumor. Of course, government cannot erect a new school for every community that desires one. But there are alternatives.

Specialty or ''magnet'' schools, which attract students for intense study in subjects such as engineering or the arts, have long been successful in the city and, more recently, in Baltimore County. Programs can piggyback on a local employer's expertise; Harford officials, for instance, have begun thinking out loud about a science school in the Aberdeen area to mine the technical expertise at the nearby Army Proving Ground.

Schools within a school is another option -- adding a new school to an existing one so the two share expensive common areas, such as cafeterias and libraries, on staggered schedules.

Such approaches may be more easily accepted because they are not so heavy-handed. Redistricting's advocates contend that families should not assume they have a claim on any school. But people recoil over redistricting because they feel that commitment, not entitlement, ties them to their neighborhood school. That emotional connection is a positive one, and should not be taken lightly.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/23/96

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