As Howard County officials worry about preserving Columbia's economic and racial diversity, a new report shows small decreases in the percentage of African-Americans in several older schools where black children have become concentrated in recent years.
Elementary schools in Owen Brown, Long Reach, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake saw small decreases in the percentage of blacks enrolled, as did Guilford near Kings Contrivance.
Overall, six of the 10 county elementary schools with more than one-third black enrollments reported small reductions in those concentrations - a reversal from last year, when nine of the 10 schools reported higher percentages of blacks. White enrollments were up slightly in five of the schools.
Fears that a combination of economic, housing and demographic changes might threaten Columbia's traditional vision of a diverse community were expressed recently in a three-part series published in The Sun.
Few school or community leaders have seen the annual report, and fewer ventured a guess about whether this year's results might represent a change in the larger trend toward higher minority enrollments.
Maurice Kalin, associate school superintendent for planning, said he feels the trend toward higher minority enrollments - including African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic students - is continuing.
But Howard County Executive James N. Robey is optimistic about a turnaround.
"I hope it's not a one-year blip," he said. "The school system needs to evaluate this, and if it's something we're doing, we need to intensify it."
The 10 schools - Bryant Woods, Dasher Green, Guilford, Jeffers Hill, Laurel Woods, Longfellow, Phelps Luck, Running Brook, Swansfield and Talbott Springs - vary from 35 to 53 percent black.
Robey has said he wants Howard's schools to reflect the whole county, in which 17.6 percent of elementary pupils are African-American.
School board member Patricia S. Gordon said that perhaps the extra money and attention paid to most of the 10 schools "has ... made them more desirable."
Running Brook's African-American population has dropped 9.2 percentage points in two years, from 57.4 percent in 1998 to 48.2 percent this year, the report says.
Black concentrations also dropped from 1 to 3.6 percentage points at Dasher Green, Guilford, Longfellow, Phelps Luck and Talbott Springs. Jeffers Hill and Laurel Woods showed increases of 0.1 and 0.4 percentage points, respectively, while Bryant Woods and Swansfield had increases in black pupils of 2.8 and 1.5 percentage points, respectively.
Several schools also attracted more Asian and Hispanic pupils. Asian-American elementary enrollment has more than doubled since 1991, while Hispanic enrollment has more than tripled in the same period, the report shows. Howard schools suspended open enrollment last year - which allowed students to attend schools out of their districts if they were not crowded - after a citizens committee on school equity studied the problem of people avoiding some of the older schools.
But Kalin said he doubts that explains the change. "My guess is that you're looking at normal fluctuations, but the trend in the last 10 years is an increase in the minority population," he said.
On another front, two of the schools, Running Brook and Longfellow in Wilde Lake, scored higher on Maryland standardized tests. Running Brook scored 16 points higher this year, while Longfellow was up nearly 6 points.
"The school has done very well," Running Brook Principal Marion Miller said. "I think there is an atmosphere of `can-do.'
County officials are worried about the trends, which have seen a steady concentration of black students in older schools - mainly in Columbia - that have also become known for lagging test scores, more transient children and more poor families.
With the crest of Howard's development wave moving out of Columbia to areas with often more expensive homes, the effect has been to create a poor perception of schools like Running Brook compared with the newer schools.
That, in turn, has led some families to avoid buying homes in older neighborhoods, which makes them more prone to investor-owned rentals. In addition, families in detached, single-family homes have remained after their children grew to adulthood, meaning school populations are determined more by more transient apartment and townhouse residents.
Some fear that a form of economic segregation could be taking hold, one that might threaten the goals of racial and economic diversity that Columbia and Howard County have treasured.
"It may not reflect more than the children in these neighborhoods moving on to middle and high schools," said Natalie Woodson, education chairman for the Howard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a member of the school equity study committee.
Woodson and County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone said they are more concerned about the performance of individual children than about average school-by-school test scores.
Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County and a 28-year Columbia resident, said he is hopeful. "If that trend is changed, we'd be very happy about that," Howell said.
But, like Kalin, he suspects a larger dynamic is still dominant.
"In this strong economy, we are endangered by our own success," he said of the success that leads people in older areas to buy newer, larger homes, selling their old homes to lower-income families .
"People who can't afford half-million-dollar homes tend to move to areas where people are moving from," he said. "That creates a larger black population."
Others are intrigued by the new figures. "It's a flag," said Mary Kay Sigaty, also a member of the school equity committee. "Now we need to watch this."