Parents decry boundaries for elementaries

Variation in achievement is reason for concerns

`Level of change is ... dramatic'

None of 4 maps drawn for northeast satisfies all

September 29, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Everyone hates Howard County's nearly annual school redistricting.

County officials hate it, students hate it, administrators hate it. But parents hate it most of all.

They don't want to move their children from the schools they attend. They say redistricting will break up communities, cause kids to lose friends, be nothing but a big hassle.

But the root of their frustration - the problem no one wants to talk about - is Howard County's skeleton in the closet: Not all schools are equal.

"A lot of people moved here to have the best of the best education system," said David Leatherman of Glenmont. The schoolchildren in his neighborhood could be sent from Thunder Hill Elementary to Phelps Luck next year if one plan under consideration is adopted by the Board of Education.

"In our case, we'd be going from [one of the] best schools in the state to [one of the] worst in the county. That level of change is pretty dramatic."

Although on average Howard County schools consistently outperform those in many other counties, some struggle, their students earning low grades and low scores on standardized tests.

Parents worry that their children might be taken from the best of the best only to be put in the worst of the best during this latest round of boundary changes, which focuses on elementary and middle schools to accommodate two new schools scheduled to open next year.

To judge a school, parents typically turn to scores from the soon-to-be-defunct Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, an annual state achievement exam that will be replaced next year with a new test.

Among pupils at Thunder Hill Elementary School, which Leatherman's three children attend, 77.1 percent scored satisfactory on the MSPAP in the spring of last year, the most recent data for which statistics are available.

Throughout the state, an average 43.7 percent of pupils earned a satisfactory score. At Phelps Luck, 44.5 percent of pupils earned a satisfactory score, and for that reason the school is continually criticized by parents.

"We're real tired of it," said Phelps Luck Principal John Morningstar. "Schools are an awful lot more than test scores. They're a measure of achievement, yes, but they're not the only standard by which we should be measured. I invite all those parents who have concerns to come see our school."

Thus far, no one has accepted his offer.

"Granted, this is where we're wrong. I'm just as guilty as anyone else," said Cathy Smith, a Brampton Hills parent whose two children, enrolled at Ilchester Elementary, could be sent to Waterloo or Phelps Luck. "I've never been to Phelps Luck, I've never met the administration, but I do go online and look up the scores and see where Phelps Luck is."

Many factors involved

Environment, transience, economics - these factors affect how a school's student body performs, acknowledges Ellen Giles, chairwoman of the county's School Boundary Lines Committee.

"As much as we would like to say absolutely everything is the same at every school, we know it's not," she said. "But that's what we're working toward."

Part of the problem, some parents say, is that the fix involves moving children who perform better into lower-performing schools, and vice versa.

The former might bring up a school's test score average, Leatherman says, but it could take away extra resources received by a poorly performing school: Higher scores will suggest that additional resources are no longer needed, even though the school enrolls children who need extra help.

The debate over redistricting is strongest in the northeast region of the county, the area surrounding the not-yet-opened Bellows Spring Elementary School.

Of all Howard schools, elementaries are the most crowded, and the northeast area is the most congested. Only one plan was drawn up by the boundary-line committee for middle school redistricting, and for the Columbia West area and the county's southeast section.

Four plans have been devised for the northeast, and none of them satisfies everyone, which makes the boundary-line committee's job particularly difficult.

The members have e-mail messages - containing anxious comments, questions and accusations - to prove it.

"People tend to ascribe some kind of devious or evil motivation to [geographical expert] David Drown and the boundary-line committee," Leatherman said. "But they're just trying to do a really tough job, and they can't please everybody."

Drawing new lines isn't a one-time deal. Continued development and population growth in Howard County make it difficult to provide enough seats to accommodate all students, and redistricting will be required as additions are put on schools and new schools open.

Recurring process

"Some things are just inevitable, and we have to deal with the consequences," said Smith, who balked at sending her children to Phelps Luck until she decided to change her attitude. "But we have to be adults about it."

For her, that chiefly means watching what she says in front of her children. "We need to be careful of negative comments about a school," she said, "because our kids might end up going there. ... We may not like it, but what are you going to do? Send your kid off to school miserable and scared because we're unhappy as a parent?"

Smith and Leatherman said that instead, parents need to speak up while they can. On Oct. 24, the boundary committee will give its recommendations to the school board, and two public hearings will be held before final decisions are made in November.

"If my kids go to Phelps Luck, I'll still be involved in soccer and my wife will still go to the school, but that doesn't mean while we have some minuscule measure of influence, we shouldn't try to exert it," Leatherman said. "But when the decision's made, you've got to move on and get over it."

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