Race difficult issue for panels

They discuss pattern of change at 8 Columbia schools

August 18, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Race may be a pervasive issue in America, but it's tough to talk about in public, even for a diverse group trying to craft a plan for creating a sense of community in fast-growing Howard County.

Last night at Savage Mill, several committees of the 6-month-old Howard County -- A United Vision wrestled with a decadelong pattern of change in the racial balance of Columbia's schools. But the group had a difficult time framing questions, let alone answers.

The topic is so sensitive that the group's education committee spent several minutes discussing and then voting on whether a reporter should be allowed to listen in. One person voted for exclusion.

The group was reacting to a recent Sun article that reported that over the past decade, a clear racial trend has developed in eight older Columbia elementary schools, according to county school system statistics.

In those schools, white enrollment dropped by 928 students but increased sharply countywide, and black enrollment increased by 609 during the same period.

As a result, the eight schools -- Bryant Woods, Dasher Green, Jeffers Hill, Longfellow, Phelps Luck, Running Brook, Swansfield and Talbott Springs -- have black enrollment ranging from 35 percent to 57 percent, much higher than in other county elementaries.

Together, those schools teach nearly half of the black children enrolled in the county's 37 elementary schools.

"What's the big deal?" asked Ken Jennings, 65, a Columbia resident since 1968.

What's important, said Jennings, who is black, is what is being taught to children, not the racial makeup of their schools or their families' incomes.

He wondered whether school district lines were being drawn to concentrate blacks in certain schools.

"You don't want schools demographically different than the neighborhoods around them," said Joanne Heckman, a white education committee member. "You don't want a school 100 percent Caucasian or 100 percent African-American."

Neighborhoods and schools can't be separated from each other. Their fates, to improve or decline, are tied, she said.

"There still is a perceived inequity among the schools," said Sue Aaron, another education committee member. "Right or wrong, that's the situation. The houses in my [Columbia] neighborhood are not bought by people with young children."

School statistics showed that most of the eight schools have lower standardized test scores and higher poverty rates than most other county schools.

Howard County -- A United Vision is an attempt to create a plan to help the suburban county of 250,000 residents forge links among segments of the community that have little contact with each other: poor and rich, young and old, black and white, rural and suburban.

Sponsored by the Columbia Foundation, the effort began in February. In June, the several hundred participants split into committees to consider issues such as education, growth, development, diversity and preservation.

Howard County -- A United Vision is led by former County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Sandra Gray, vice president of leadership at Independent Sector, a Washington-based coalition of more than 800 nonprofit groups.

The group has planned three more meetings at which the committees are to create action plans for influencing community life. A final report will be presented in November.

The group plans another general public meeting Sept. 16 at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory near Fulton.

Barbara Lawson, executive director of the Columbia Foundation and a diversity committee member, said the change in racial balance in Columbia's schools has more to do with demographic changes than anything else.

Anne Barker, another diversity committee member, worried that the Sun article was "negative" and might reinforce unfavorable images of schools in Columbia and Howard County.

"Our mind-set in this part of the world is that black inner-city schools are the worst in the state," Barker said, grimacing as she looked at a copy of the article. "Is this going to mean the school system in Howard County will fall below what it was 20 or 30 years ago? It's negative."

Pub Date: 8/18/99

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