School transfers raise issues of equity, policy

Howard County mulls ramifications of open enrollment

September 15, 1999|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

The exodus of dozens of Columbia children from a diverse middle school to a mostly white one in the country has sparked questions about the school system's transfer policy and about perceived inequities in Howard County schools.

Parents of 50 children from one neighborhood, Clemens Crossing, switched from Wilde Lake Middle School to the rural Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton after lobbying the school board to allow open enrollment, The Sun reported yesterday. They and other parents paid $37,800 a year to put 63 children on private buses to the school.

"I think it would have been a mistake to make them stay when they didn't want to, and I'm not sorry that we voted to [let them leave]," said school board member Laura Waters. "[But] I think we can do a better job with redistricting, that we maybe shouldn't even have open enrollment."

Joshua Feldmesser, chairman of the Wilde Lake Village Board and a graduate of Wilde Lake Middle School, said he worries that open enrollment is like an "escape valve" when problems begin.

"Open enrollment is a short-term solution to a bigger problem and plays to the biggest part of the problem, which is of course perception," Feldmesser said. "Then nobody deals with the larger issues."

Under open enrollment, parents may move their children to another school as long as they provide transportation. Parents persuaded school officials this year to allow their children to leave Wilde Lake Middle, even though the school was under capacity.

For some public officials and parents, the shift from one school to another presents a delicate dilemma: Few would fault the parents for acting in what they believe is the best interest of their children, but many worry about the effect on the racial and economic makeup of Columbia schools.

The parents who left say their central concern was not race but the quality of education at Wilde Lake Middle. Some parents visited the school and judged the level of learning to be under par. A number of parents mentioned the school's standardized test scores, which compared favorably with some Baltimore region schools last year but lagged well behind the county's top middle schools.

And many parents worried about a concentration of poverty at the school -- a quarter of the children were on free and reduced-price lunch programs last year, about double the number five years earlier.

`Better off without them'

Some officials said that even if the parents leaving are better off economically, Wilde Lake Middle might be better off without them.

"Some of those people were so negative that I think they very well may have poisoned the well, so to speak, and been a real impediment in the changes that are being made at Wilde Lake Middle School," said school board member Stephen Bounds. "I heard from people within the school and people who were leaders in the school who said, `Those people are killing us, and they're only here to find fault. They're not here to make things better and look for solutions, and we're better off without them.' "

Although Wilde Lake Middle has a new principal and is looking to improve, some worry that too much of a focus on standardized test scores has hurt the school.

"It seems like scores almost always fall on a direct correlation between the level of the scores and race and socioeconomic class," Feldmesser said. "It could be a phenomenal school but it's not going to look that way based on the bottom-line scores."

Another alternative?

Some parents of children from other schools said yesterday that while they support freedom of choice in enrolling one's child, they wonder whether there's another way to address perceived inequities in the school system.

"I feel very torn," said Jennifer Brewington, a mother of two. Brewington said she understands why parents removed their children from Wilde Lake Middle, but she believes she saw something of a turnaround at her daughter's high school, Wilde Lake High, a diverse school with once-sagging test scores that many people in her upscale Columbia neighborhood fought not to attend five years ago.

Since then, scores have risen, and the school has become the district's favorite example of how decline is not irreversible.

"People didn't want to go there and they were crying to go away and they were going to suffer if they were made to stay there, and now those same people say, `Whatever you do, don't take us out of Wilde Lake [High],' " Bounds said. "There's been a dramatic turnaround."

Though not all Wilde Lake High parents share that opinion, some, like Brewington, were satisfied.

"By and large, most people I think were happy with it for a variety of reasons," she said.

But Brewington also notes that Wilde Lake High benefits by drawing from a much larger geographic area than Wilde Lake Middle, which has a higher proportion of poor students -- a factor that concerned some of the parents who chose to enroll their children elsewhere. Other parents, including some who live in the Lime Kiln district, suggest Wilde Lake Middle suffered from the school board's decision to allow people to leave.

"I don't blame those parents. I just wish that the rules were different," said Paula Diamond, mother of a Lime Kiln sixth-grader. "If I were [the parents], I probably would be doing the same thing, but it's just a shame that they couldn't take all their efforts and all the money they put into the bus and try to fix their school. It seems like there should be another solution. I don't have the answer."

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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