Howard County schools are finally starting to look like those in the rest of Maryland.
Long the nearly exclusive domain of middle- and upper-class students -- with high test scores and a low level of violence -- Howard's schools are rapidly beginning to take on some of the characteristics of their more urban neighbors.
And Howard's educators -- used to teaching an upscale, homogeneous body of students -- now are facing some of the challenges that their urban colleagues have been struggling with for decades.
In Howard in the 1990s, the proportion of students coming from low-income families has increased by almost 75 percent. A growing number of children are entering kindergarten without preschool experience. The percentage of children with limited English proficiency has doubled.
"Our system's demographics are changing, no doubt about it," said Sandra French, the Howard school board's chairwoman.
National studies consistently show that, in general, school achievement and misbehavior tend to be directly correlated with income levels.
And Howard's experience essentially has been no different.
Howard's demographic changes this decade can be seen in a higher percentage of county children struggling with beginning reading, test scores lagging in schools in the county's lower income areas and, perhaps most disturbing to many, fights and suspensions increasing three times faster than the overall growth in the school system's enrollment.
The death of Wilde Lake High School biology teacher Lawrence C. Hoyer -- who collapsed and died of a heart attack Wednesday after protecting a student's being hurt in a brawl -- is just the latest and most graphic illustration of the growing violence that has made the Howard schools look more like those in more urban systems nearby.
"This was a tragic reminder to us that we're not the same kind of school system that we were 10 years ago, or even five years ago," said Howard schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.
"We do need to address the issue of violence, and not try to excuse or justify violence among students just because of society. We cannot let that part of society in our schools."
In the past four months, Howard educators have proposed a sweeping set of initiatives to curb disruptive student behavior -- even among elementary students.
They also have new plans to improve reading instruction, saying too many students are entering the schools with little or no experience with printed words.
The biggest demographic changes are showing up in schools in such older villages of central Columbia as Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake and in the North Laurel and Elkridge areas.
But Howard educators say the changes are evident at every school, and they're occurring not just in Howard but throughout the region.
A regional issue
"We have to remember that it's a regional issue, not just one in Howard County," Associate Superintendent James McGowan said. "That sign that says 'Welcome to Howard County' is not a point of insulation. It's a point of entry."
While the racial composition of the Howard schools has shifted in the 1990s -- the percentage of minority students has grown from about 21 percent in 1990 to about 26 percent this year -- most educators say the biggest demographic changes are socioeconomic rather than racial.
By this fall, one in 10 Howard students will qualify for free or reduced-price lunches -- the federal standard for low-income families, according to Rae Ellen Levene, the county's Title I coordinator.
Schools' needs rise
That's an increase of 75 percent over the proportion of tTC low-income children in the Howard schools just six years ago.
"With every additional low-income student," Levene said, "the needs of the school goes up that much more."
These needs are seen by Principal James Weisner every morning in the cafeteria of Phelps Luck Elementary, a school in Columbia's Long Reach village struggling to boost its test scores.
Three years ago, fewer than a dozen Phelps Luck students qualified for free breakfast; these days, about four dozen come through the breakfast line.
"It's remarkable," Weisner said. "There's no question it forces us to change what we're doing so we can try to meet their needs."
The higher rate of transience among students is yet another change being faced by schools, even in such seemingly stable neighborhoods as Columbia's Owen Brown village.
Social skills lacking
Since the beginning of the school year, about 91 new students have enrolled in Owen Brown Middle School, and about 88 others have left -- a turnover of about 14 percent of the school's 645 students.
"When these kids are transferring in, they don't have the years of Howard County instruction -- or the years of Howard County's rules and discipline -- that the rest of our students have," Owen Brown Middle Principal Michael Goins told a meeting of his school's parents recently.