Balto. Co. considers two K-8 schools Proposal revives issue of student districting

December 08, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Cedarmere Elementary School parents never recovered from the Baltimore County school board's decision seven years ago to redistrict their children out of their community, from crowded Franklin Middle to Deer Park Middle in Randallstown.

Black community leaders never forgot, either -- especially the vehemence with which white parents opposed the move to a school in a mostly black neighborhood.

Now, the controversy is resurfacing as residents in the Cedarmere area, with the help of local politicians, push to move their children back to Reisterstown -- saying that the redistricting has damaged community cohesiveness and reduced housing values.

And they might get their way next year. School officials are considering a plan to convert two elementaries -- Cedarmere and Hernwood -- from schools for grades kindergarten through five into schools for grades kindergarten through eight. They would be the only K-8 schools in the county.

Del. Robert L. Frank, a Reisterstown Democrat, has lobbied the county superintendent for such a change.

"We have communities that border on Reisterstown Road, with kids who recreate on Reisterstown Road, go to the library there and are part of a community that is Owings Mills and Reisterstown, who are being sent to a school that is really part of the Liberty Road community," Frank says. "Bringing kids back into the schools that are local is really important."

But Ella White Campbell, executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council, sees such arguments as code for racial separation, and calls the plan an underhanded way of using county money to appease a small group of parents.

Converting the elementaries into K-8 schools would divert some of the money slated for a Deer Park Middle expansion to additions and improvements at Cedarmere and Hernwood. The Deer Park project was endorsed by voters last month; the other schools were not mentioned in the countywide $90 million bond referendum.

"It's defrauding the public," Campbell says.

Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione says the K-8 proposals have nothing to do with the clamoring in Cedarmere, but are being studied to relieve crowding at Deer Park Middle. The school has 1,189 students -- 34 students over capacity -- and expects a burgeoning enrollment.

"It's a coincidence as far as I'm concerned," Marchione says. "I've had a philosophical reason for wanting to move to the K-8 program prior to all this coming. Size makes a difference. Too many middle school students in one place is not a good idea."

These particular schools were chosen because Cedarmere and Hernwood are slightly under capacity -- by 32 students and 146, respectively.

If the school board approves the proposal, the schools would likely need additions to accommodate the three new grades, which would be phased in one grade per year. School officials are now looking into the needed changes in facilities, curriculum and administration, and costs.

Marchione says a committee has studied K-8 schools over the past year, and research has him convinced that the model has educational value, especially in areas where middle schools are bursting with as many as 1,500 students. He says he is considering similar arrangements for a future school in the Owings Mills New Town development and for two or three other elementary schools that he would not name.

Experts say children at middle school age perform better when they have close contact with adults who act as mentors, whether in a large school or small one. Some research shows that girls perform better in K-8 schools than in middle schools because the shift in schools at a time of dramatic biological change can produce long-term damage in self-esteem, says Margaret J. Finders, assistant professor of English and curriculum and instruction at Purdue University.

Baltimore City has a dozen schools that begin in prekindergarten or kindergarten and end in eighth grade. Some say they were designed to keep middle-class residents in the city. Superintendent Walter G. Amprey's 1992 proposal to split them into separate elementary and middle schools was crushed by protests from influential neighborhoods such as Roland Park.

In July, more than 50 people, including elected officials, met at Cedarmere to make their case to Marchione. A real estate agent told the group that housing values have been affected by the redistricting, and houses are harder to sell in the redistricted area.

Houses selling for $200,000 and $300,000 in Delight Meadows and developments off Nicodemus Road would fetch up to 20 percent more in the area that remains in Franklin Middle's district, said Harriett C. Wasserman of Long and Foster in Pikesville.

Marchione told parents at the meeting that he couldn't redistrict the children back into Franklin Middle, because that school is crowded -- but promised to explore options.

Black parents and community leaders, meanwhile, say the K-8 proposal -- first outlined to the school board's building committee last month -- doesn't sit right.

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