Schools' racial makeup changes

White enrollment drops in Columbia, North Laurel over five-year period

Wilde Lake is an exception

16 county schools have mainly minority students

February 08, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In this 50th year since the Supreme Court's historic Brown vs. Board of Education ruling ending legal segregation in schools, racial concentrations of students continue to be a concern - even in Howard County and Columbia.

In the past five years, white enrollments have dropped substantially in many Columbia and North Laurel schools, nearly tripling the number of schools with mostly minority students in a county where 65 percent of students are white.

At the same time, three older Columbia schools that once had black majorities have gained white students in recent years. Asian-American and Hispanic enrollments are growing quickly, too.

Despite the changes, the drift in Howard seems to stop short of the heavily lopsided racial enrollments common in nearby Baltimore County. No Howard school is more than 75 percent minority this year; only one is majority African-American. By all appearances, Columbia enjoys a trait highly valued by many of its residents - the diversity that seems so fleeting elsewhere.

"I think [Columbia] is an area where people are comfortable with diversity," said Patricia Gordon, the county school board's only black member. "It enhances us and broadens us."

Howard had six county schools with predominantly minority enrollments in 1998-1999, but in 2003-2004 there are 16, according to school system statistics - a change driven mainly by a decrease of about 2,000 white students. Twelve of those 16 schools are on Howard's School Improvement Unit list for low-performing schools.

Hispanic and Asian enrollments grew strongly in those schools - by 415 students - while black enrollment was more steady. The number of black pupils decreased by 143 in the dozen elementary schools in that group, while growing by 205 in the four middle schools on the list.

By contrast, on Baltimore County's west side, 25 schools from Randallstown to Woodlawn have enrollments that are more than 90 percent minority.

The national trend toward racial concentration in schools was outlined in a study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University released last month to coincide with the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Titled "Brown at 50: King's Dream or the Plessy Nightmare," the study finds that since a Supreme Court decision upholding neighborhood schools in 1991, segregated schools are once again becoming the norm in the United States, even as the nation's population becomes more diverse.

The study named Maryland as one of the most resegregation-prone states in the nation.

Despite that designation, Howard schools officials said they do their best to ignore race.

"What we have is growing diversity," said schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke. "There is more emphasis on educating our students one at a time. The best way to do that is on a student-by-student basis."

County officials say the racial change is the result of housing patterns and community gossip they can't control.

Changes occur "once a school is seen as an underperforming school - once that whisper is out," said County Councilman and Columbia native Ken Ulman, a Democrat. In Columbia's original neighborhoods, older homeowners with grown children stay put while lower-income families in rental units turn over faster, "skewing those ratios," Ulman said.

But Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat and the council's only black member, said he believes that race is not the dominant factor. "I still believe it's a question of class and economics," he said.

While the number of predominantly minority schools rises in the county, it's a different story in areas such as Wilde Lake, where young white families are replacing older couples.

Running Brook and Talbott Springs elementary schools in Columbia - on the SIU list with majority African-American enrollments in late 1998 - have gained some white pupils since and are more evenly mixed racially. Running Brook in Wilde Lake village, Howard's smallest school with 260 enrolled, is nearly evenly split among white, black and Asian and Hispanic pupils. Talbott Springs is similar, though larger, with 443 children.

Wilde Lake Middle School, the source of a furor four years ago when the school board allowed parents of more than 50 white schoolchildren to pay $37,800 to bus their kids to a newer, nearly all-white school - Lime Kiln Middle - has gained 33 white children since. Wilde Lake Middle this year is 44 percent white, 43 percent black, and about 11 percent Asian and Hispanic.

"That was what drew a lot of us here, hoping there would be someplace where people would be valued for who they are," said Natalie Woodson, education chairman of the county's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Woodson, a retired Baltimore teacher and principal, served on a citizens committee in 1999 that recommended ways for older schools with higher minority enrollments to achieve equity with newer, nearly all-white schools.

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