School not yet open, parents questioning its racial makeup

Balto. Co. New Town High is meant to ease crowding

September 05, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

A year before it is scheduled to open, Baltimore County's first new high school in a quarter-century - the $35 million, state-of-the-art New Town High - is already bruising feelings and provoking fears among some parents.

They worry that the school system will cater to the wealthy New Town neighborhood, limiting enrollment to its children, possibly by making the school a magnet, while excluding students from predominantly black communities nearby.

"They shouldn't create an air of exclusivity there," said Michael Franklin, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County, who lives in Randallstown and has a daughter and niece in middle school.

As school officials begin sorting out which students will attend New Town High, the decision has become weighted with bitter memories and class resentments, remnants of actions taken years ago by school and county officials that black parents say slighted them.

Many African-American families have fled Baltimore City for northwest Baltimore County in search of better schools for their children. But what they have often found were crowded classrooms and schools that performed poorly. They see New Town High as the answer to those problems.

School officials stress that their first priority is to reduce crowding at Owings Mills and Randallstown high schools, each of which is more than 200 students over capacity. Milford Mill Academy, another area high school, is more than 150 students over.

"This school is not being designed for one group or another. It's being built to alleviate the overcrowding," said Deputy Superintendent Christine M. Johns, who emphasized that the magnet idea is one option under consideration.

Some parents and community leaders, noting that perceived slights were the responsibility of prior superintendents and county officials, are willing to give the current administration the benefit of the doubt.

"I don't think there is anything sinister or something going on," said Barry Schleifer, who is executive director of the Liberty/Randallstown Coalition, an umbrella organization for community groups on the west side of the county. "You have something new, and they're spending a lot of money on it, and they want to make it good."

Still, Schleifer hopes that the final decision does not hurt the neighboring high schools, either by drawing away their best students or competing with their magnet programs. Randallstown High has a magnet program in communications, and Milford Mill has an international baccalaureate course of study.

When the county targeted the Owings Mills area for growth more than 15 years ago, New Town High School became inevitable. The 212,000-square-foot school, being built across the street from New Town Elementary School, which opened last year, will be able to house 1,350 students within its two-story, brick-and-glass walls.

The building will be cutting edge, with features including a "sprung-wood" dance floor and the latest in noise abatement and lighting technology.

The project was troubled at the start. County officials tabled it for six months in 2000 and 2001, fearing $14 million in cost overruns. School officials said the project would not exceed its budget, and county officials eventually agreed to restart the work.

Donald F. Krempel, executive director of facilities for the county schools, said construction is proceeding on time and within budget. New Town High is scheduled to open at the start of next school year.

It is what school officials will do with the building that concerns parents and community leaders along the Liberty Road, Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road corridors, where many black families who left the city have settled.

They are especially worried about the magnet option.

"If you do that, you're going to negate the whole reason for the school - which was to reduce overcrowding," said Ella White Campbell, a community activist. High-achieving students from around the county could attend, while students in Owings Mills and Randallstown high schools would remain in cramped classrooms.

Black parents say county and school officials have overlooked their children's needs in the past.

A school in a predominantly black neighborhood that had been closed for a dozen years reopened in 1994 as Sudbrook Magnet Middle School, with a student body that was mostly white for several years. The student population is evenly split now.

In 1999, officials decided to renovate aging Randallstown Elementary School rather than build a new school. That angered community leaders who complained that old schools in predominantly white neighborhoods were often replaced.

But school officials say they should be judged for their own actions, not those of their predecessors.

"There was a day and age where officials drew boundaries and said, `This is the way it is going to be,' We're well beyond that point," said H. Scott Gehring, who oversees schools in the northwestern part of the county. "Inclusion is clearly the premise of how we do things."

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