Columbia parents vote with their bus

Believing older schools are inferior, they send children to newer one

September 14, 1999|By Gady A. Epstein and Erika D. Peterman | Gady A. Epstein and Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

The weekday morning scene in Columbia's Clemens Crossing neighborhood is a familiar one: a dozen children gathered on a corner, waiting for their yellow school bus.

But the bus ride is extraordinary.

This year, neighborhood parents are sending these children -- and dozens more -- to a mostly white school in rural Fulton, away from the racially and economically diverse Columbia middle schools.

And the parents are picking up the tab, pooling $37,800 a year for buses to make the six-mile run to Lime Kiln Middle School.

This journey out of Columbia is both a story of parents doing what they believe is academically best for their children and a case study in suburban white flight.

It is also a demonstration, some say, of how open enrollment policy can exacerbate a racial and economic imbalance in Howard's highly regarded school system.

"The people running away from a particular school, they generally have the resources," said Columbia Council member Earl Jones.

"We know what happens is invariably the minorities are all crowded into one school."

The parents of these 63 children can be uncomfortable discussing the role they are playing in the transformation of Columbia schools.

Their chief concern when they banded together to change schools was not race, they say, but declining academic performance at the schools they were leaving behind.

"I felt guilty pulling out of there, but at the same time I think it was a really good thing because it sent a message that something has to change," said Patti Drazin, who sent her sixth-grade son to the new Fulton school, Lime Kiln Middle, after a disappointing visit last year to classes at Wilde Lake Middle School.

"It's a perfect example of a situation where people can be very innocently and sincerely trying to do what's best for their child and be conflicted as to whether they are a party to making things worse."

Drazin was part of a remarkable exodus from Wilde Lake, Columbia's oldest middle school.

Dozens of parents from her Hickory Ridge neighborhood, Clemens Crossing, organized last year to urge school officials to allow their children not to attend Wilde Lake, which had been "protected" from losing students for two years because it was already under capacity.

The parents' forceful lobbying persuaded the school board to lift that "protected" status, despite objections from the system's top redistricting official.

As a result, roughly 50 Clemens Crossing families ultimately enrolled their children at Lime Kiln instead of Wilde Lake this year, including some seventh- and eighth-graders who attended Wilde Lake last year.

Several more Clemens Crossing families chose Lime Kiln instead of Harper's Choice Middle School, another diverse Columbia school, for their children.

The parents hired two buses to take their children, and a few children from other Columbia neighborhoods, to Lime Kiln at $600 per child a year.

The families who are leaving behind such schools as Wilde Lake Middle make clear that race has nothing to do with their decisions. But regardless of the motivation, the Clemens Crossing movement provides a dramatic snapshot of the migration of white, affluent families from older Columbia schools in this decade.

Changes in enrollment

White enrollments at elementary schools in Columbia's oldest neighborhoods, for example, have dropped sharply in the past 10 years. During the same time, these same elementary schools have seen a near-doubling of African-American students. The number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches has tripled.

The Columbia middle schools have seen similar changes.

Of all the county's middle schools, Wilde Lake had the highest percentage of students on free and reduced-price lunch plans during the 1997-1998 school year, nearly 24 percent. That figure had doubled in five years.

The school is also one of the county's most ethnically diverse. According to preliminary numbers from the school system, the population this year is 45 percent white, 43 percent black, 8 percent Asian and 2 percent Hispanic.

That reflects about a 10 percent drop in white students and a 10 percent increase in black enrollment since a year ago, when the school was 51.2 percent white, 39.6 percent black, 6.7 percent Asian, 2 percent Hispanic and 0.4 percent native American.

By contrast, Lime Kiln Middle is 85 percent white, 5 percent black, 6 percent Asian and 4 percent other minorities.

A number of Clemens Crossing parents believe that poverty has concentrated at schools such as Wilde Lake to the point that it hurts the academic environment.

Some of the parents advocated busing students from areas with low-income housing to newer schools outside of Columbia.

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