Columbia faces segregation problem

Black enrollment at older elementaries leaps in past decade

August 02, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As Dexter Hunter prepared to move from Germany to the Baltimore area, he immersed himself in Internet research, seeking a community that provided excellent schools and a welcoming embrace for interracial families like his.

His search led him to Columbia, where his daughter could take advantage of a county school system that ranks among the nation's best, in a community noted for diversity.

But as his daughter prepares for kindergarten at Running Brook Elementary School, and the family contemplates buying a home, Hunter is re-examining his choice. Troubled by a creeping segregation that has hit many older Columbia elementary schools -- Running Brook's student body is 57 percent black, for example -- he's looking for another school that better reflects the country's racial balance.

"We'll probably make it a short stay because I'm really concerned about where Columbia and Howard County are going," said Hunter.

Others share his concern. If recent trends continue, they say, county schools may soon mimic the national urban-suburban pattern, with Columbia's older elementaries becoming mostly black, while other schools stay mostly white. That would be a dramatic departure from the vision of Columbia founder James W. Rouse, who sought a community with a rich mix of racial and economic backgrounds.

White enrollments at elementary schools in Columbia's oldest neighborhoods have dropped sharply over the past decade. While African-Americans make up 16.7 percent of the countywide school population, eight elementary schools in the villages of Wilde Lake, Harper's Choice, Owen Brown and Oakland Mills are 35.5 percent to 57.4 percent black -- nearly double the range in 1990.

The changes in elementary schools suggest that the racial makeup of Columbia neighborhoods is changing, although conclusions are hard to reach because census data are 9 years old. What is clear is that a trend is under way, and some people are disturbed.

"We have to make sure our schools reflect our community," said County Executive James N. Robey.

Robey, elected in November, indicated that he was unfamiliar with the enrollment figures until shown them by a reporter. They are compiled routinely by the school system and have not provoked high-level public discussion, though at the grass-roots level, people like Dexter Hunter seem aware of the changes.

Top school officials say they're not concerned and the phenomenon reflects ordinary growth trends. More blacks with school-age children are moving into what were mainly white neighborhoods, replacing aging residents whose children are educated and others who yearn for newer homes elsewhere, these officials say.

"The demographics are shifting as more people move to Howard County," said county schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who doesn't expect racial imbalances to deepen. The racial trend in school populations, he said, reflects "the natural moving up of people who came here and lived in Columbia a number of years, and moved to larger houses."

In 1990, the last census year, Columbia had an African-American population of 18.5 percent, and the elementary schools -- Bryant Woods, Dasher Green, Jeffers Hill, Longfellow, Phelps Luck, Running Brook, Swansfield and Talbott Springs -- more closely mirrored the community.

The change has been driven more by the 928-pupil decrease in white enrollment in that period than by the 609-pupil increase in African-American enrollment. Considering that those changes occurred as white elementary enrollments in the county increased 37 percent, some people see signs of racial flight.

`It will spread outward'

These observers say whites and affluent people of both races are disdaining communities and schools perceived as lower quality. They fear that Columbia's core will one day appear racially and economically segregated, and that neighborhoods and schools will suffer.

"It's white flight, it's middle-class flight," said Joanne Heckman, a Harper's Choice resident with children at Longfellow Elementary who helps run a nonprofit after-school program. "If we don't reverse the trend it will spread outward.

"People don't recognize that Columbia is following the pattern of a traditional urban area," said Heckman, who is white.

One factor driving parents from the older elementaries and neighborhoods of Columbia is that these schools post standardized test scores below the county average. Parents shopping for schools on the basis of test results is not a new trend, but it rankles principals.

"Scores don't begin to tell the story," Running Brook Elementary Principal Marion D. Miller told eight parents of prospective pupils at an informal coffee in April. "Because such a low number of kids take the test, the scores are skewed by just a few who don't speak English well, or who come from other places.

"We're not lowering standards for anyone. We're raising standards," she said, referring to special programs and lower class sizes at the school.

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