Enrollment plan open to debate

A matter of choice to some

to others, it's harmful, elitist

Board to decide March 22

March 11, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

To folks like Chris Thorne, the decision that parents make about where to send their children to school in Howard County is as simple as elementary arithmetic.

"They only have one shot at going through school," said Thorne, who lives in Columbia. "Just one. So sometimes you just have to do what you have to do."

To folks like North Laurel's Lisa Kawata, Thorne and others like him embody a subtle, surreptitious form of classism creeping through the school system.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Sunday about open enrollment in the Howard County edition of The Sun reported an incorrect date for the Board of Education's next meeting. It will be held Tuesday.
The Sun regrets the error

To the Howard County school board, it has come down to this: Now that it is time to decide what to do with the popular but much-debated policy called open enrollment, whose standpoint is the more valid?

On March 22, the board will make a decision about open enrollment, a 20-year-old policy that allows parents to choose any school with empty seats, as long as the parents provide transportation.

Recently, many parents and groups have grown critical of the practice, as they have discovered that more of the schools left behind are older and more diverse.

At the behest of an independent committee created last school year to evaluate fairness in the system, the school district instituted a one-year moratorium on open enrollment. The year of studying the policy will not be over until school ends in June, but school officials believe that they have gathered enough evidence to say that the merits of the practice have been overshadowed by its unintended consequences.

"I don't want to support anything that encourages white flight or bright flight," Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said in a recent interview. "I'm understanding the impact [the policy is having], so I don't want to do anything to support that."

Until March 22, the five school board members will have to consider O'Rourke's assessment and the impassioned pleas of hundreds of parents who not only believe in the policy in theory, but say they need it for day-to-day living.

Single father Frank Lopez, for example, wants to enroll his 4-year-old son, Kevin, at Atholton Elementary School this fall, though he is supposed to attend Guilford Elementary, a few miles away.

Kevin has been attending in-home day care near Atholton for two years and loves his caregiver, Lopez said. As a state trooper, Lopez often works nights and travels frequently. It is difficult, Lopez said, to find a provider to accommodate such an irregular schedule. If open enrollment were repealed, that is what Lopez would have to do.

"And as a result of my recent divorce, Kevin has had to endure many changes, and I strongly feel that I need to provide as much stability as possible at this time in his young life," Lopez told the school board at a meeting last week. "Leaving a day care where Kevin is extremely comfortable while adjusting to the demands of going to school for the first time would be very difficult."

Day care conflicts constitute the majority of the reasons parents ask to enroll their children outside their home districts, Associate Superintendent Maurice F. Kalin said.

But there are seemingly as many other reasons as there are students - about 1,950 - who use open enrollment.

There are families like the Thorns, who disagreed with one principal's philosophy and found a nearby school that they believed better fit their children's academic needs.

Or families such as those who live in Columbia's close-knit Hopewell neighborhood who, though in the Talbott Springs Elementary School district, have traditionally attended closer, smaller Stevens Forest Elementary. They want to retain the right to do so, particularly because more than 40 percent of Stevens Forest's population has taken advantage of open enrollment and the school's enrollment is steadily declining.

But some say the real reasons that many parents decide to leave one school for another are not so innocuous. Rumors of white flight flew in September 1999, when parents of 50 children from one neighborhood pooled their money and hired buses to switch from racially diverse Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia to the rural, more homogeneous Lime Kiln Middle in Fulton.

Effects of the exodus reverberate through that Clemens Crossing neighborhood. Parents who stayed behind are still reluctant to talk publicly about it, but they say privately that the neighborhood continues to be divided.

Similar rumblings from open-enrollment opponents have swirled about families from Talbott Springs who enroll at Stevens Forest, and those from the Laurel Woods Elementary district who enroll at Gorman Crossing Elementary. In each case, the schools being left had lower test scores and higher minority populations.

The Leadership Committee on School Equity, a 23-member group that studied county schools from November to March last year, issued a report on open enrollment with mostly negative findings.

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