School equity panel meets

Parents-choice policy of open enrollment falls under scrutiny

Fairness concerns remain

February 04, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Members of a school-reform panel slated to give a report on the Howard County school system March 1 discussed possible recommendations yesterday -- and mulled the merits of the policy that allows parents to move their children from one school to another.

The Leadership Committee on School Equity, a 24-member group formed by Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and County Executive James N. Robey, is studying issues relating to resources, programs, staff, accountability and equity in Howard schools.

The committee is to meet once more, in closed session, before releasing its report.

Yesterday, committee members discussed several possible recommendations, such as installing automatic telephone systems in all middle and high schools, and giving staff and parents a way to evaluate how schools are run.

Members also raised concerns about the system's open enrollment policy, which lets parents put their children in any under-enrolled school in the county as long as they provide transportation.

Mary Kay Sigaty, chairwoman of the Factors Affecting Equity subcommittee, said open enrollment has the potential to hurt the school system in several ways.

While stressing that her thoughts are a "work in progress," Sigaty said open enrollment can affect the ethnic and economic mix in schools, keeping them from reflecting the population of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Last fall, Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia lost dozens of pupils to Lime Kiln Middle in Fulton through open enroll-ment. Now the percentage of Wilde Lake pupils eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of low family income, has "dramatically increased," Sigaty said. The percentage of minority pupils also rose, she said.

Meanwhile, she said, open enrollment is particularly prevalent at focus schools, which are given extra resources to combat low test scores. Of the eight elementary schools losing the most pupils through open enrollment, seven are focus schools, Sigaty said.

Open enrollment also appears "discriminatory" because parents must be able to provide transportation, something not everyone can afford, she said.

"That is something to be considered if we want to have an equitable system," she said.

Sigaty is looking for community input on open enrollment, as well as on redistricting and accountability, at a meeting from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday Feb. 9 in the Department of Education building, 10910 Route 108 in Ellicott City.

Leadership committee members said yesterday that perception fuels some of the parents' choices about open enrollment.

Concern about academic achievement was the main reason noted by parents who opted not to send their children to Wilde Lake Middle School this year.

But test scores at Glenwood and Mount View Middle schools are similar to those at Wilde Lake Middle, and "you didn't see parents abandoning those schools," said Natalie Woodson, a panel member and the education chairwoman of the Howard County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

However, Joanne Mead, a committee member and teacher, noted that Wilde Lake Middle School earned low scores on the system's most recent satisfaction survey.

Twenty-three percent of staff members there responded that they were satisfied -- lower than at all other county middle schools -- and the percentages of "satisfied" responses from Wilde Lake parents and schoolchildren are among the lowest.

"Perception drives a lot of the movement," Sigaty said, noting that many of those who left Wilde Lake Middle under the open enrollment policylast fall are sixth-graders who never attended the school. "Reality, though, does drive some of it."

"Is it better to change the [open enrollment] rule or change the perception?" wondered Mary Ellen Duncan, president of Howard Community College, who co-chairs the committee.

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