Open policy on enrolling put on hold

No additional students may switch schools for 1 year, board decides

`Creates instability'

Moratorium called to gauge how practice affects neighborhoods

May 01, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

In approving a decision to temporarily halt its open-enrollment policy, the Howard County school board says it needs a year to study how the popular practice affects the district's neighborhoods and school populations.

Board members placed a one-year moratorium on open enrollment last week,banning any more county students from enrolling in schools outside their home areas.

Under open enrollment, parents can move their children to other schools within the district as long as they provide transportation. In Howard County, the practice is very popular.

Associate Superintendent for Planning and Support Services Maurice Kalin said more than 2,300 of the district's students are enrolled in schools outside their home areas.

This spring, nearly 500 people applied to open-enroll their children next school year.

Many parents and educators and some public officials expressed concern about the policy after dozens of Columbia children left older and ethnically diverse Wilde Lake Middle School in the fall to attend new and predominantly white Lime Kiln Middle School.

While working on this year's tumultuous-as-ever redistricting process, board members had difficulty justifying the mandatory reassignment of some students while allowing those who could afford transportation the privilege of attending whichever schools they chose.

"On the one hand, when you talk about redistricting, you have people asking for stability," Kalin said. "Well, open enrollment creates instability. One process allows students to leave a school, while another process tries to fill the spaces once they leave. So when you look at the two processes, they're very antagonistic to each other."

Kalin said taking a break from open enrollment would give the board an opportunity to study the redistricting and open-enrollment processes. He said the moratorium isn't as drastic a move as some parents might think: 57 of the district's 64 schools will not allow open enrollment next year because they don't have enough space to accept new students or for other stability-related reasons.

"So for all intents and purposes, there's a moratorium already," Kalin said. The school board made an exception for kindergartners whose parents want them to attend Stevens Forest Elementary, because that small school is dependent on open-enrolled children to fill its seats every year.

Board member Karen B. Campbell said the board also would make exceptions for families with extenuating circumstances.

"The board is empowered to make exceptions to its own policy, and we do it all the time," Campbell said.

School equity sought

Natalie Woodson, education chairwoman of the Howard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the moratorium on open enrollment might cause inconvenience for some parents but is necessary if the district is to achieve equity among schools.

Woodson said the Leadership Committee on School Equity, of which she was a member, suggested in its report to Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and County Executive James N. Robey that the district cease open-enrolling to evaluate the program and redistricting.

"We need to look at the overall picture, and in order to do that we need kids in their home-based school so we can get a true picture of the makeup of the schools," Woodson said.

She said committee members hope that, after the moratorium has ended, the school board and district administrators will have developed a countywide plan for open enrollment to ensure an equitable distribution of students.

"That is something that we had recommended should be done so that we could take a really good look at how students are assigned to schools -- and where there are some school districts that may need to follow new boundary lines -- so that open enrollment wouldn't have to be used by parents to try to avoid schools that they considered less adequate," she said.

"And if that's still the case," Woodson added, "then those schools really needed to upgrade."

Improvements planned

One way the district plans to upgrade some of the schools -- those whose students earn lower test scores and those with higher populations of students who speak limited English, or receive free or reduced-priced lunches -- was to add positions and programs aimed at those schools' challenges.

If the full $350 million requested by board members from the county executive isn't restored this month, most of those positions and programs might have to be eliminated, administrators said.

The possible cuts in funding include money to pay for:

Translating documents for non-English-speaking residents.

Extended-day kindergarten for focus schools.

Completing the class-size-reduction effort in second-grade classrooms.

Performing-arts uniforms.

Transportation for students who participate in after-school academic support.

Building maintenance projects at older schools.

Replacement of playground equipment.

Three academic support specialists, who would work at focus schools.

Jackie Brown, the district's director of academic support services, which was created to address academic equity issues, said the positions and programs are essential if test scores in older schools and those with diverse populations are to be raised.

"With the cuts as is, it's sad that it is those critical things in terms of equity achievement for the kids that are really going to have to be held back," Brown said. "The only thing that we're clinging to is that these are recommended cuts and not final. What we're hoping is that the council will restore these things."

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